The last album from Tami Neilson, Don’t Be Afraid, plotted her journey through the various stages of grief following the death of her father Ron. Family matters still have their place on Sassafrass!, but her new LP is also fuelled by a righteous sense of anger over the prejudices and injustices women continue to face.
The lyrical concerns are matched by the music, with country and rockabilly taking a backseat to soul and R&B. ‘Stay Out Of My Business’ the first single and opening track is a good case in point: an out-and-out soul-stomper, the song finds Neilson lambasting people who suggest she might be neglecting her parental duties by pursuing her musical career (“Your eyes are judging/your elbows nudging/All the poison that you spread with each nasty word you’ve said”). On ‘Devil In A Dress’, Neilson takes to task the “one dimensional fantasies” about women having to be angels or bad girls, while no prizes for guessing what the shimmering, Staples-infused, ‘Smoking Gun’ is all about: “Dark and dirty closets beneath the Hollywood sign/Paying out the ransom in flesh/To the piper with the power to destroy or bless”. Even the frisky rumba of ‘Bananas’ is stacked with satirical jibes about pay disparity between male and females (“it’ll leave you reeling when you hit the glass ceiling…. best think twice, just play nice/put those ambitions of yours on ice”).
But while Sassafrass! is the closest Neilson has got to a soul album, there’s still plenty for her old school country fans to enjoy. ‘A Woman’s Pain’, which was inspired by her grandmother’s teen pregnancy, recalls the early Dolly Parton classic ‘Down From Dover’; ‘Manitoba Sunrise At Motel 6’ is the plangent tale of the loneliness of life on the road, while ‘One Thought Of You’ – based on an unrecorded demo by her late father – sounds like a long-lost Patsy Cline standard.
Sassafrass! also gets to showcase the talents of her regular touring band The Hot Rockin’ Band Of Rhythm; the way they effortlessly switch stylistic gears from track to track shows that they more than live up to their moniker. But ultimately this is Neilson’s show and her stirring blend of fiery social commentary and retro cool make this one of the homegrown albums of the year.