Amythyst KIah

REVIEW: Amythyst Kiah “Wary + Strange”


Amythyst Kiah Wary + Strange 

Americana music is full of difference makers right now. Age, gender, race and orientation are all becoming less of a factor as boundaries blur and melt away, maybe more so than in any other genre. All that matters is having a story and the ability to tell it. Tennessee’s Amythyst Kiah is one of those difference makers – female, black, queer and existing in a field previously dominated by straight white dudes. On her new album, Wary + Strange, Kiah shows no desire to hide any part of her complex self.

Wary + Strange begins with a bit of a mission statement. “Soapbox,” with little more than acoustic guitar and her vocals, stamps out her territory – “Don’t wanna know how you would do it/Don’t wanna know how it should be.” She’s not interested in the rules or the old way of doing things. If that message was somehow missed, the album’s first full song indelibly amplifies it. “Black Myself” was first featured on Our Native Daughters’ 2019 album. The version on that record was certainly not lacking in assertiveness, but Kiah’s solo version of her song is a punch in the teeth of her doubters, beginning with anyone who might question her musical choices – “I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me/’Cause I’m black myself.” (quick history lesson – the banjo predates Deliverance and Hee Haw – it was originally an African instrument, brought to our shores by slaves). Here, Kiah’s instrument of attack isn’t the banjo, but her acoustic guitar, and she and her band deliver the song’s message of pride and independence with the energy of a full-on rock show. 

Wary + Strange is full of moments like these – deeply personal circumstances that are simultaneously relatable to any number of listeners. “Wild Turkey” is an eerie recalling of Kiah’s mother’s short life and sudden death by drowning – “Body in the water for days and days/Hopes for a safe return were hopes in vain.” This tragedy did immeasurable damage to Kiah -”When your soul dies/You just can’t hide it/Everyone can tell” – and the fact that her mother’s death was at least partly attributable to alcohol – “Wild Turkey in the car seat/The bottle’s empty, I hope it gave her some relief” – brings the singer worry later on in her own life. “Hangover Blues” is slow, sexy and melancholy all at the same time, with memories of a good night – “You had my hands and knees and loins shaking” – doused by the pangs of a rough morning – “Lord knows I’d like to look but I was scared to death.” Carried by great slide work from Blake Mills, it’s the embodiment of next-day regrets. “Firewater” takes a more delicate approach, with Kiah’s expert acoustic guitar work and a string intro, and has the singer beginning to emerge from that troubled period – “Been drenched in firewater won’t save me/I’ll forsake the path of filth and fleas” – and ready to make more grown-up choices.

And that’s really the point of Wary + Strange – not for Kiah to rehash her past, but to tell us where she is right now. Yes, there’s still heartache, most prominently found in “Ballad of Lost,” her modern version of a lonely cowboy ballad. The track is bolstered by some lovely pedal steel work from Rich Hinman and background vocals from the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, but the emotional tug comes from Kiah’s own powerful, but never overwrought, voice when she sings “i believe that I can forgive/Can I forget, never, “ a conflict that been the downfall of many relationships. And “Opaque” gives us a woman not open to indecision or compromise. Riding on a standout bass line from Wendy Melvoin (because, when you have a member of The Revolution in the studio, you don’t shove her into the background), the song is a demand for honesty – “Every word kept a secret when you spoke to me of love/How can I ever know if it was true/Excuses made to avoid the truth.” Just like in “Black Myself,” Amythyst Kiah has established her identity. Best be comfortable in your own skin if you want to be part of her world. 

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Black Myself” – My second-favorite song of 2019 may end up being my favorite song of 2021, given the rough, uncompromising edge provided by Kiah and her band. As the kids might say, it slaps. 

Wary + Strange was produced by Tony Berg, recorded and mixed by Will Maclellan and mastered by Bob Luudwig. All songs were written by Amythyst KIah, with co-writes going to Taylor Green, Patrick Taylor and Andrew Gibbens on “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me).” Additional musicians on the album include Berg (guitar, acoustic guitar, samples, piano, banjo, bass, keyboards, bass harmonica, Mellotron, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, drums, percussion), Maclellan (bass, loops, kaleidoloop), Taylor (lead guitar, slide guitar), Green (piano, Wurlitzer), Kane Ritchotte (drums, percussion, handclaps), Wendy Melvoin (bass), Blake Mills (electric guitar, slide guitar), Gabe Noel (bass, upright bass), Patrick Warren (keyboards, strings, Mellotron), Ethan Gruska (Mellotron, celeste, whistle, keyboards, Wurlitzer, clavinet, samples), Elijah Welles (handclaps), James Dick (percussion), Grant Dermody (harmonicas), Kyle Snuffer (horns), Eric Dalton (piano, string arrangements), Nicole Misterly (violins), Ben Sollee (cellos), Rich Hinman (pedal steel), Daniel Ellsworth (keyboards) and Amy Ray (background vocals).

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