Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The opening track to album number two from Americana husband/wife duo Campbell and Williams is “The Other Side of Pain.” It’s an angry and gripping middle finger from a jilted partner to their ex. While the following tracks aren’t quite as vitriolic, there’s no doubt that Campbell, composer or co-writer for all but three songs, has tapped into altogether darker scenarios for this set.
Take “Three Days in a Row,” a bluesy shuffle that uses animal imagery of white wolves and hellhounds to describe the brutal experience of kicking a drug habit. The title tune, a solo turn from Williams, documents a woman waiting for her mate to kick a habit and realizing she’s the only one willing to stand by her man, to coin a cliché, (“I may not get up and walk away/ but I might break your fall”) all to a lovely, acoustic waltz time melody. The title of “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Night” tells all you need to know, bringing a “Bad Moon Rising” theme to a rollicking, upbeat bluesy rhythm.
Williams digs into one of the album’s few covers, “My Sweetie Went Away,” best known by Bessie Smith’s version, bringing a bit of Maria Muldaur’s sultry grit to the table as Campbell displays his talents on mandolin and fiddle. The late Levon Helm — who employed both Campbell and Williams — makes an appearance on Carl Perkins’ semi-obscure “Turn Around,” perhaps one of the Band drummer’s last recorded performances. It’s a country weeper where Campbell and Williams duet on vocals to a bittersweet story about a couple that has each other’s backs regardless of who is experiencing pain. The tender tune also shows Perkins wasn’t just a one-note rockabilly songwriter.
Blues informs many of these performances, in particular the stunning ballad “When I Stop Loving You,” a co-write for Campbell with the great soul singer William Bell; the duo’s passionate vocals make it a highlight of this delightful set. The Mississippi-styled “Slidin’ Delta” takes the couple down to the swamp to sing the blues as they moan “Well I can’t do nuthin’ but hang my head and cry” atop a slow, sexy groove.
Both singers have versatile voices with Campbell’s natural gruffness a nice yin to his wife’s more powerful croon. But when Williams locks into a Linda Ronstadt vibe on the bittersweet, melancholy, roots pop “Save Me from Myself,” it’s clear she’s the vocal powerhouse of the two.
Despite the somber, occasionally emotionally raw lyrics, mirrored by the couple’s stoic faces on the disc’s cover, this has enough rocking musical moments like the grinding, soulful “Hit & Run Driver” and terrific, often understated playing to keep it from becoming depressing. On Contraband Love, Williams and Campbell reaffirm what anyone who has experienced them live can attest to; that this couple has tapped into the dusky spirit of Americana in all of its forms (folk, blues, rock and roll, gospel etc.) and created a unique sound inspired by the past, that is spirited, stirring and timeless.