She’s back, the gloves are off and she is coming out swinging. On 2016’s celebrated release, Don’t Be Afraid, Tami Neilson shared an intimate glimpse into her life and loss; now a resident of New Zealand with two small boys, and coping with the tragic loss of her beloved father, Ron, Don’t Be Afraid was all about deep dark places and longing. This time out has a completely different feel. Tami is all about shaking, shimmying, rhinestones and a fresh new hairdo. There is a party brewing, and Tami is hosting. Her powerhouse vocals driving it like a locomotive with boundless steam. Sassafrass! is like a soundtrack curated for a Tarantino film, Neilson manages to deliver subversive lyrics wrapped up in vibrant candy-coloured packages of soul, rockabilly, blues and Patsy Cline-esque country in equal measure.
Recorded at The Sitting Room in Lyttelton, New Zealand, SASSAFRASS! was co-produced by Tami Neilson and Ben Edwards, who also co-produced her last two critically acclaimed albums Dynamite! and Don’t Be Afraid. She’s accompanied by her Hot Rockin’ Band of Rhythm: Joe McCallum (drums), Mike Hall (bass), Brett Adams (guitar) and Neil Watson (guitar and pedal steel) who have joined her on her extensive international touring schedule the past 3 years, including playing with label mate, Royal Wood, Colin James, opening for the great Mavis Staples and most recently, Robbie Williams. For the first time, this tight unit is joined by a brass section, expanding Tami’s sound and making this album a broader soundscape, while strings add a lush, cinematic touch.
The first track and lead single, “Stay Outta My Business” tackles trash-talking trolls and unwanted opinions on everything from career to parenting, all while sashaying around glamorously in winged eyeliner and sequined heels. The cheeky “Bananas” manages to pull off the fun 50’s novelty of “Come On A My House” while poking at the bear of gender inequality… “It’s bananas, she want equal pay just for working all night and day/ give your head a shake, Girl, no way! It’s bananas.” “Diamond Ring” recalls a Ray Charles smoky late night session with its slinky groove. “A Woman’s Pain” is the story of Tami’s first-nation Grandmother. She spins her tale of teen pregnancy and a shotgun wedding in a style reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry’s great songwriting. “Partake of pleasure and reap the shame/the hand that holds the power assigns the blame/and this old world turns on a woman’s pain”. “Devil in a Dress” presents the stereotypes of the “bad girl” and the “good girl” and challenges the one-dimensional way women are too often portrayed. “One Thought of You” is another beautiful composition of Ron Neilson, Tami’s father. A song that already sounds like a standard, it recalls a golden age of music, walls slowly spinning with flecks of light at a high school dance, a song of love and loss. “Miss Jones” is a soulful celebration, a loving tribute to the fire and sass of “hurricane on legs”, the late Sharon Jones. “Smoking Gun” is dark and swampy, a haunting song of vindication for the women of Hollywood, “Well you can run, boy, but you can’t hide. The judgment day has finally come for the man who holds the smoking gun.” “Kitty Cat” is a rollicking, yet timely reminder that it’s actually not ok to grab someone’s Kitty Cat. Neilson delivers it with the righteous fire of Wanda Jackson after a hands-y date with Elvis. “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6” is a snapshot of an early morning on tour, missing loved ones, the music written to pay homage to Glen Campbell on the day he died. “A Good Man” simmers a slow, soulful burn as the locomotive pulls into the station. The hiss of steam signals the end of the journey as you return to the arms you love after fighting the good fight, saying what needs to be said and singing what needs to be sung.
“SASSAFRASS” (slang): A sassy person who isn’t afraid to speak their mind.