Sylvia Rose Novak | Bad Luck | (Due South Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
The musical evolution of Americana singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sylvia Rose Novak can be traced through her album covers. On 2014’s Chasing Ghosts debut, she’s outfitted in a demure white dress cradling a fiddle as if she just left being a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding. But on Bad Luck, Novak’s fourth release, she’s dressed in a black sleeveless shirt, brandishing tattoos on her right arm, sitting next to a broken mirror, looking lean and even a little mean.
The Alabama based Novak’s change over six years is such that those who heard her first album might not even recognize it’s the same artist on this new one. The transformation has been gradual with the songs, sound and even her looks becoming increasingly rawer over the course of her four releases. As if to test these newer, harder rocking waters, the disc’s first single “Waiting on October” is an easy going pedal-steel inflected slice of folk country where Novak reminisces about a lost love with a mixture of sadness and regret sung in a sweet, trembling voice. But that’s not indicative of the majority of the other songs.
Push play and a sturdy drum beat punches out followed by thick, meaty, reverbed guitar on “Dallas,” a dark story of criminals on the run. Two tracks later, “South of the Boulder” explodes with driving, train-time drums and high octane twang guitars cranking out like the Old 97s on steroids as Novak recounts another story about an ex, or maybe current, lover again on the lam. On “Dry” the grinding guitars rumble like Crazy Horse as Novak sings about the horrors of alcoholism in “Can you tell me this gets better? Could you lie? If I tell you that I never could get dry.” She goes full on Southern rock bluster on the title track with guitars churning out and a sharp, nearly strangulated solo when she sings “You’re running from the future/You’re hiding from the past/At least we know these nightmares don’t last.”
A few less aggressive moments such as the glowing folk with stirring pedal steel of “Waiting on October,” the gentle glistening “Arkansas” and “Little Sister” alter the pace reminding us of her earlier recordings. But the majority of the tunes find guitarist Kelen Rylee (also Novak’s husband) slashing and burning through roots rockers like “Flowers for the Fortunate,” crunching out a terse, edgy slide solo on “Dirty” (with the pithy lyrics “It’s just bad luck/the only luck you’ve got”) and opening up for the Steve Earle styled “Shadows.”
Bad Luck’s juxtaposition of tender and tough is perhaps best labeled by Novak’s official tee shirt which reads “Bombs and Blossoms.”
She wears it well.