Every so often a voice will come along that just completely bowls you over. One publication described Courtney Marie Andrews’ voice as “midway between Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston.” Perhaps an even better descriptor was the one that said, “one that can only be understood by being heard.” Combine Andrews’ remarkable twangy expressive vocals with insightful songwriting and top-notch production from Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris) and the result is her stunning sixth album – May Your Kindness Remain.
Andrews was admittedly in a bit of a rut, labeled as a Joni Mitchell-esque folk singer, and feeling that she had to change her approach and push for a different sound. She didn’t quite know what she wanted but began seeing Howard’s name as producer on many of the records she liked. With nothing to lose, and no real expectations, she asked her manager to get in touch with Howard and he agreed to come aboard.
Andrews and her band soon found themselves in a rented house high above Los Angeles, where they lived for eight days, recording this album live in one room. She indicates that the band set up in a circle, recorded all in a first take or with just one overdub. It’s a large but warm sound replete with electric guitars, swirling organ, lush harmonies and soaring, impassioned, gripping vocals from Andrews who tapped into a soul-like approach by consciously stretching her vocals, reflecting her recent listening habits of Motown and soul as well as Little Feat. Andrews is a powerhouse throughout but especially on the organ-driven “Border” and “Took You Up.” Ironically, she becomes almost a female Luther Vandross (who had a similarly titled song) on “This House.”
Andrews, who left home at age 16, is a world traveler with songs about the road informing much of her prior work. Here, though, she’s writing more about the human condition and people she’s met along the way. She reminisces on her own childhood, people she’s known, stories from her family, and the commonality of folks struggling through the same issues. We might be depressed but we need to fight through it. While that sounds like a bleak picture, the album does not come off that way. She’s searching mostly for empathy and strength, believing that even the most difficult problems are worth facing. Defiance emerges, and Andrews doesn’t become myopic. It’s as if we all share the same problems. On “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo,” for example, she sounds positively uplifting.
That song, the third track, begins the strongest sequence of the album, into the piano ballad “Rough Around the Edges,” into the bluesy “Border,” honoring the immigrant’s steadfastness in the face of blatant racism, into “Took You Up,” accepting love as a simple gesture before any illusion of success. Then we get more rich imagery in “This House.” The final three tracks don’t pack as much power as these but are still strong tunes. “Kindness of Strangers” offers an easy-going country rock feel, the bitterly sarcastic “I’ve Hurt Worse” goes back more to her folk style, and “Long Road Back to You” reverberates in gospel, driven partly by the keening background vocals of gospel singer C.C. White, who pushes Andrews throughout the record. Stunning, often riveting, Andrews has indeed found a new groove.