Tami Neilson: Sassafrass!

Tami Neilson
Sassafras!
(Outside Music)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Who needs a random button when you have an artist as varied as New Zealand’s Tami Neilson? On her third album in four years, she touches on so many diverse bases that any roots music lover is bound to connect with at least a few.

Upbeat party rocking? Sure thing. Hitting a swampy groove? Got that going. “Ode to Billy Joe” backwoods storytelling? On it. Frisky rockabilly? Oh yeah! Eagles-styled strummy ballad? Gotcha’. Sultry, noir Sinatra-styled, late-night jazz crooning? It’s here too. And that just scratches the surface. There’s also sweet blues, ‘60s-styled rollicking R&B and even a tropicalia track with horns called “Bananas” that sounds like it could be an ad for Chiquita or Dole.

Holding it all together, somewhat, is Neilson’s husky voice, strong songs and a sassy attitude implied by the album’s title. It keeps this 11 track set from sounding as if she’s throwing genres at the wall to see what sticks. Additionally, her women empowered lyrics, which aren’t explicitly “me too” derived but clearly inspired by that movement, makes even the most candy-coated material resonate with a powerful underlying message.

The opening “Stay Outta My Business” decries a double standard for mothers where society wants them to work, then admonishes them for not staying home with their baby creating a “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” issue. The aforementioned “Bananas” addresses the glass ceiling for women in business and the ominous vibe of “Smoking Gun” takes the “King Of The Casting Couch” men with power to task with scalpel-like precision as she warns them those days are over with: “You can run, boy, but you can’t hide/ the Judgment day has finally come,” she sings. The frisky “Kitty Cat” is a thinly veiled poke at the female crotch grabbing we’ve all heard about. And in the riveting “A Woman’s Pain” about her grandmother’s trials and tribulations, Neilson sings, “This old world turns on a woman’s pain.”

She pays tribute to her late songwriting father covering his “One Thought of You” in full Peggy Lee chanteuse mode and gives a playful shout-out to Sharon Jones as “a hurricane on legs” on the funky/rapid fire lyrics of the appropriately titled “Miss Jones.” The closing ballad “Good Man” honors the titular guy in an affectionate and emotional reading, ending the album on a tender, beautifully rendered note.

Neilson’s longtime band and co-producer Ben Edwards keep the music open and allow the singer space to strut her powerful and passionate voice. That’s enough of an artistic thread to keep the disparate music styles in focus, making the exuberantly titled Sassafrass! deserving of its exclamation point and a keeper despite, or perhaps because of, its stylistic eclecticism.