Yola: Walk Through Fire

Yola
Walk Through Fire
(Easy Eye Sound)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Soul vocalists singing country have been an item at least as far back as Ray Charles’ groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music tore down the barriers in the early 1960s, and even before that. Still, it’s refreshing to know that the musical fusion remains more than alive and well on this stirring debut from R&B singer Yola. 

It has been a tough road for the UK native who at one point was homeless in London. After a short stint in Massive Attack and singing backup for other artists, Yola Quartey came to the attention of Dan Auerbach. Together, they crafted this extraordinary set in his Nashville studio with some of that city’s finest musicians. 

It won’t take long to get blown away as opening-track “Faraway Look” explodes out of the speakers with the maturity and determination of a professional. The Phil Spector-ish backing builds to a crescendo and Yola lets loose with her husky vocals atop a sweeping original widescreen melody you’ll swear you’ve heard before. 

The mood gets more intimate as Yola shifts into shimmering, sweet West Coast pop, a place she clearly feels at home. Even when laying back as on the soft ballad “Rock Me Gently,” one of a few selections about the frustrations of a broken relationship (“Love, it’s a losing game/ The cards, they’re all stacked against me”), you realize it’s just a matter of time until she unloads with her monster voice. It’s that musical tension which makes each of these dozen tunes feel so natural and organic, even with horns, background vocals, multiple guitars and strings supporting her. And when Yola swings to belting diva mode as on the few set-pieces such as “Lonely the Night,” where a restrained opening on a song about unrequited love (“Once upon a time I wished for a love like you/ But I guess sometimes wishes don’t come true”) morphs into full blown Roy Orbison drama on a blockbuster chorus, you know you’ve got a star in the making.  

Every track is a keeper. Yola’s blistering, soulful voice transcends her material, with even weaker moments like the poppy, lighter-than-air “Still Gone” and the not-quite-sappy Hall & Oates-styled ballad “Keep Me Here” seeming substantial due to her sheer throaty power.   

Early comparisons to Darlene Love singing the Dusty Springfield songbook are easy touch points, but they’re also accurate. Yola can hold her own with the best, and it’s likely this terrific album will end up as one of the most impressive debuts of this or recent years. Its combustive combination of talent, songwriting and sympathetic yet bold production makes Yola’s release one of the finest soul/country fusions in recent memory.