Dame Productions/Thirty Tigers
Mandy Barnett made quite a splash recording her self-titled debut for Asylum before she was even 21 years old. Prior to that she had already been resurrecting Patsy Cline in the stage production Always…Patsy Cline. Barnett was a child prodigy who signed her first record deal at age 12. She was quickly labeled a channeler of classic country music. Now, two decades plus later she is heading in a very different direction with Strange Conversation, (could just as easily be labeled “strange mix”) produced by Americana stalwarts Marco Giovino and Doug Lancio, recorded in Muscle Shoals (Recorded at The Nuthouse in Sheffield, AL) with Nashville and Boston area session players. The core band is Lancio (guitar), Giovino (drums), Viktor Krauss (bass) and Tom West (keyboards)/
Barnett has plenty to say about this new course, “I needed to cleanse my palette. I’m a torch singer, somebody who can do a little bit of everything. Pop, blues, gospel, country, soul – songs with emotion is what I do…The truth is every album I’ve made has been American, even that first Asylum album with the Jim Lauderdale songs, but the arrangements were more timeless, more to the classic songbook. And Americana’s a broad genre that has elements of pop and retro, soul music. So this time, I leaned away from what people expect from me – and into things that made me reach and stretch.”
So this lies somewhere between obscure vintage pop and modern progressive songwriting with some shades of blues and soul too. These ten songs encompassing six different decades are culled from hundreds of songs that Giovino sent her to listen to. It’s quite a range of songwriters spanning Lee Hazelwood, Tom Waits, Mabel John, Neil Sedaka, Andre Williams and others. She opens with Mable John’s “More Lovin’,” in her typically sultry fashion with Arnold McCullers joining on vocals across a light funky bed laid down by Lancio and band. The McCrary Sisters join for the ‘60s girl group pop of the Tams’ “It’s All Right (You’re Just in Love’) driven by the keyboards of Rudy Copeland (organ) and Tom West (piano). Greg Garing’s “Dream Too Real to Hold” is the quintessential torch song for Barnett who uses it as a platform to build toward a rather steamy groove on the Ted Hawkins penned title track.
John Hiatt joins on vocals for Sonny & Cher’s “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” with his gravelly, weathered voice as the perfect counterpoint to Barnett’s smooth delivery. The tack piano, horns, and dual guitars create a dissonant round sound that’s much different than what the originators would have envisioned. Neil Sedaka pitched his own tune “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett, a tune that features the most backing instruments – three guitars, accordion, and organ. The McCrary Sisters join again for Andre Williams’ “Put a Chain on It,” adding even more gospel and soul to Barnett’s emotive vocals. Dennis Brennan plays harmonica and guitarist Peter Parcek joins with Lancio here and on the preceding “The Fool,” giving the album a bluesy romping close. (Note: Giovino, Parcek, West, and Brennan are all from the Boston area).
Perhaps her biggest vocal stretch is the Tom Waits tune, “Puttin’ On the Dog” about which she says, “The idea of singing the Tom Waits song, that’s so far out of the box for me. I had a ball cutting, It’s wild, and a little sloppy and erratic. So I could sing with reckless abandon and put my soul into it.”
Barnett truly enjoyed what Lancio and Giovino brought in terms of musical grooves and textures in their arrangements. She says, “This time, I discovered facets about me I didn’t know. I heard shadings, nuances to bring out. I can still belt, but you know, you don’t have to hit a high C every time.”
Kudos to Barnett for giving us the unexpected. She proves versatile enough to sing a wide array of styles just as she intended.
- Jim Hynes