Courtney Marie Andrews’ Brooding Departure into Retro Americana Is Her Best Career Move
Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album Honest Life – streaming at Spotify – sounds like a Melba Montgomery record from the early 70s, but with different production values. And it doesn’t sound anything like what Andrews has ever done up to this point. If there ever was a musician who’s earned a new lease on her artistry, it’s Andrews. As Americana, it’s more Memphis than Nashville, drawing a straight line back to Dusty Springfield. Among current artists, Tift Merritt is the obvious reference; Margo Price is also a point of comparison. In other words, Andrews’ strikingly purposeful turn in a retro direction isn’t dadrock – or momrock. She’s playing the Mercury on May 8 at 8 PM; cover is $10.
The album is short: ten songs, most of them around the three-minute mark. Many of the arrangements don’t have a rhythm section, which enhances the intimacy. Awash in Charles Wicklander’s gospel piano and Steve Norman’s distant lapsteel, anchored by Andrews’ bittersweetly swaying acoustic guitar riff, the opening track, Rooking Dreaming contains a pretty devastating admission. “I was too broke, too shallow to dive deep,” Andrews intones, an unexpected mea culpa from a recent refugee from the corporate pop machine. “I am a passenger to somewhere, I do not yet know the name…I am a when will I see you again,” she explains with guarded hope as the song ends, very much unresolved. She revisits that theme later on the title track, a bluegrass tune reinvented as quasi-gospel, spiced with her own tastily tremoloing guitar solo.
This Is Not the End, a lost-love lament, has a similar backdrop, but no drums, just steel, piano and Andrews’ delicate acoustic fingerpicking. Irene has a dramatic flair, a cautionary tale for a potential drama queen: “You are a magnet Irene, sometimes good people draw troublesome things.” Andrews throws in a funny, chugging solo on the low strings to drive the point home.
With nifty honkytonk piano balanced against washes of steel, How Quickly Your Heart Mends brings to mind Merritt’s early Nashville material. Let the Good One Go is slower and drenched in vintage soul, marinating in yet more of that terse, gospel-tinged piano. Table for One, a stark band-on-the-road narrative, comes across as one part Lowell George, one part Townes Van Zandt: “Found peace in the Redwoods, lost it twenty miles later,:” Andrews laments. Themewise, Put the Fire Out follows to a logical conclusion: get off the road. It wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Laura Cantrell album.
Andrews’ ache in 15 Highway Miles is visceral: “If fate is a dart that you throw at a map, then you can’t count on fate, you can count on that.” But the ending is optimistic. The album’s final cut, Only on My Mind is a quiet stunner, a devastating, string-drenched portrait of shattered dreams, with a cruel allusion to a popular Louis Armstrong hit. This is a good, reflective headphone album for a summery Sunday afternoon with a pitcher of lemonade and a scone…or a solitary stroll along the Brooklyn Prom, or the piers on Emmons Avenue, water bottle in your backpack, flask in your pocket.