Review: Tami Neilson Captivates on Fifth Album, ‘Kingmaker’

Tami Neilson

Videos by American Songwriter


(Outside Music) 

4 out of 5 stars

Anyone looking for an Adele or Lady Gaga-style diva in roots music can stop searching now. Tami Neilson fills those large cowboy boots, and more, on her fifth release since 2015. 

The pride of Auckland, New Zealand (by way of Canada), hasn’t abandoned her rockabilly roots on Kingmaker. But she magnifies her sound and vision, shifting into a handful of lavish, widescreen, melodramatic ballads that pepper this 10-song set, sending it to classic territory.  

It’s no secret that Neilson’s rafter-shaking voice, somewhere between k.d. lang and Nancy Sinatra’s more strident work, was ready for the cinematic treatment she luxuriates in. Opening with the slow-build title track, she burns against a lone reverbed guitar, building suspense until a minute in when the backing vocals, sumptuous orchestration, and echo chamber explode into a mini-filmic spectacle. 

She returns to that brooding vibe for the portentous spaghetti Western shimmer of “Baby, You’re a Gun,” a song inspired by Dolly Parton’s autobiography, with sweeping strings setting a sprawling soundstage.

Even when the approach drops a few notches as on the sassy “Mama’s Talkin’,” which condemns men who act like big shots, Neilson fills the room with her strutting, arena-ready pipes. When she unloads like Shirley Bassey belting out “Goldfinger” as violins dramatically well up in “The Grudge”—a chilling story of her parents’ struggle and pledging not to let old grudges continue—it’s goosebump-raising time.

Willie Nelson lends his distinctive warble to the waltz-time “Beyond the Stars” taking the part of Neilson’s father in a bittersweet duet he accurately describes as Patsy Cline meets Marty Robbins. 

The short 33-minute album closes on a percussive heavy, psychedelic wah-wah guitar swamp blues stomp as Neilson again confronts sexism in the music industry with the subtlety of a military tank. 

Each of her releases has pushed the singer/songwriter’s boundaries, leading to this: her finest, most idiosyncratic, and captivating work which, to her credit, there are few comparisons for.

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