The Upshot: The “S” word gets a thorough workout, FAME-style, on what just may be the most perfect platter of 2017 so far. Worth noting: In addition to CD, it’s available on 180-gm vinyl, and an informal A-B comparison clearly suggests that the wax is sonically superior.
BY FRED MILLS
Everything—and I do mean everything—on the third record from NYC-based country soul songstress Emily Duff clicks, from the wise-beyond-her-years lyrics and charisma-draped, Melissa Etheridge-meets-Lucinda Williams-meets-Bobbie Gentry vocals, to the easy-going virtuoso musicianship of her band and assorted guests and the rare-air recording vibe that comes with cutting an album at the legendary FAME studios. Even the album cover—a painting by Chalet Comellas-Baker that depicts a shot glass, an ashtray, and a vintage turntable with a record spinning on it—carries a whiff of intimacy that augments the larger picture (no pun intended).
Duff, who grew up listening to classic roots (Kris, Willie, Janis) and soul (Al, Marvin, Aretha), worked with guitarist Gary Lucas in Gods & Monsters in the ‘90s, replacing Jeff Buckley when he embarked upon a solo career. Soon enough, she felt the irresistible tug of Americana, releasing Pass It On and Go Tell Your Friends and laying the stylistic and emotional groundwork for what would become Maybe in the Morning. Fortuitously, an opportunity arose to record in Muscle Shoals, and she jumped at the chance. Aptly enough, country soul/swamp pop as immortalized at FAME has, according to Duff, “a sexiness to it that almost feels forbidden. It’s rock ’n’ roll, but there’s also a bit of it that sounds sanctified, that’s protecting from the devil. It’s almost got a church quality to it, that you can step to the edge but then you’ll step back.”
No shit. The dozen tracks on Maybe in the Morning embody those very qualities, and then some.
Opening track “Hypmotizing Chickenz” [sic] is funky and funny, with her core band—guitarist Scott Aldrich, bassist Skip Ward, and drummer Kenny Soule—conjuring up a groove that’d make the original FAME Swampers proud, while an actual FAME alumnus, session keyboardsman Clayton Ivey, contributes crucial organ textures to underscore Duff’s vocal swagger. (Duff’s lyrics have a delightful “Polk Salad Annie”-esque quality to them here, in lines like “Backwards walkin’ Granny/ She fell off the front porch again/ Made it all the way to Nashville/ She’s still lookin’ for big brother Ken.”) A few songs later, the title track goes for full immersion via a thickly-pulsing arrangement and choirlike backing vocals. Amid the gently waltzing “I’d Rather Go Blind” vibe of “Don’t,” things get taken down a notch or two, smokily, sweetly, and sexily, Duff’s subtle vocal rasp imbuing the song with an uncommon earthiness; that contrasts perfectly with jaunty upbeat twanger “Daddy’s Drunk Again,” in which Duff details a family that’s holding on but is at risk of disintegrating and, as the narrator, she’s just about had her fill (“Daddy when you gonna put that bottle down/ Looks like you’re tryin’ awful hard to drown/The same damn thing goes down every day/ $50 and a dream on the scratch ‘n’ play/ But nobody wins when Daddy’s drunk again…”).
One unimpeachable standout, among many, is “Diamonds”: With its “Ode to Billie Joe”-tilting, country-swamp arrangement, it finds Duff training her lens on marriage, Loretta Lynn style—which is to say, the good parts alongside the bad. And on closing track “Somebody on Sunday,” she goes straight-up country gospel soul (there’s that “S” word again)—complete with call-and-response choruses and righteous chants of “Amen!”—to bring a universality to the fore wherein everybody, on Sunday morning, is equal (equally culpable, and therefore equally capable of redemption) in the eyes of you-know-who.
It’s risky to assign a 5-out-of-5 stars to a review of a new release, as the wise rock critic will typically wait at least a year (or ten) to see if a record can hold its own against the passage of time. But Maybe in the Morning has an essential timelessness that can’t be denied. It’s the kind of album that deserves to be framed and hung on the walls of FAME studios—just like its progenitors from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Believe it.
DOWNLOAD: “Somebody on Sunday,” “Maybe in the Morning,” “Don’t,” “Needledrop Blues” (The latter is, you guessed it, an ode to the joys of spinning wax that doubles as a relationship metaphor. —Vinyl Ed.)