REVIEW: Mandy Barnett Has a “Strange Conversation”


On Strange Conversation (Thirty Tigers), vocalist Mandy Barnett ventures into the undiscovered country. From Tom West’s opening organ notes on “More Lovin,” it’s clear that Strange Conversation is a different kind of Mandy Barnett album. Barnett, with producers Marco Giovino and Doug Lancio, has made an album that’s as much Memphis as Nashville, as much soul as country. Recorded at the Nutt House in Sheffield, Alabama, the album swells with the sound of nearby Muscle Shoals. There’s more of Neal Pawley’s trombone and John Isley’s saxophone than there is of Lancio’s banjo or Thomas Juliano’s lap steel here.

Mandy Barnett’s calling card is her vocals. On Strange Conversation, Barnett expands her vocal talents to interpret new types of material, and she’s as lovely and powerful a singer as she’s ever been. We’ve known that Barnett could sing country since she was a teenage prodigy, but, with Strange Conversation, Barnett demonstrates the range of her of vocal talents. Whether she’s singing country, soul, country soul, or even dipping her toes in gospel, Barnett’s talents will not fail to impress the listener.

The guest vocals supporting Barnett add a sheen to the songs and enhance her. With Barnett duetting with John Hiatt on “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” it hardly feels like a Sonny Bono song. The McCrary sisters, whose harmony vocals are some of the best in the business, do no less than amazing work on “Put A Chain On It.”

Barnett’s shift from country to a more soul sound is somewhat reminiscent of the change that Nicki Bluhm unveiled earlier this year with To Rise, You Gotta Fall. Bluhm’s previous albums, though not quite as strongly country in their orientation, were definitely more twangy; her current album is, like Barnett’s, much more soul-infused. Where Barnett is an interpreter, however, Bluhm is a singer-songwriter, making these projects very different.

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