Singer/songwriter/guitarist Samantha Fish has evolved from the guitar slasher in a power trio to an artist who has become increasingly restless and somewhat unpredictable. Maybe she’s settling into her signature sound and maybe not, but she’s caught the attention of enough folks to ascend to a major roots label, Rounder, home to such artists as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. If you’ve followed Fish’s career, especially in 2017 when she released both a retro-soul album with horns, (Chills and Fever) and then the Luther Dickinson-produced Americana-blues (Belle of the West) in the space of six months, you know she’s been broadening her appeal, scope, and band size too. Working with three-time Grammy producer Scott Billington in Memphis’ famed Royal Studios, Kill or Be Kind, finds her delivering better songs and a sound that draws somewhat from her previous blues rock, retro soul, and roots- oriented releases, as she migrates toward pop.
Two of these songs were released as a two-song single – “Watch It Die” and “Love Letters” last May. The former is in Fish’s blues-rock mode, giving her a chance to wield her fiery axe while “Love Letters” builds in a simmering, sensual Memphis R&B groove before building to a searing bridge and guitar solo. “Love Letters” also introduces on e of the album’s central themes- the dangers of losing yourself in love. As you listen, you’ll pick up horns, B3 and synthesizers in the mix as well as background vocalists on “Watch It Die.” This is not Fish’s crack road band but mostly skilled Memphis session greats like keyboardist Rick Steff, saxophonist Jim Spake, and even the Rev. les Hodges on “Dirty.” The instrumentation is new (something is always new with Fish over the past few albums) as she comments, “Bringing in background singers and synthesizers, which I’d never done on an album before, that added an extra edge. Honestly. It was a challenge. It pushed me to think about the songs differently. That trust from my producer gave me the freedom to really take some risks.”
Fish points to the growth of her songwriting, focusing more on the melody rather than a series of lyrics to frame her guitar solos. She worked with several co-writers – Jim McCormick, Kate Pearlman, Patrick Sweeney, Parker Milsap and Eric McFadden. Most of them have worked with country and pop artists where lyrics are clearly in the forefront. As a result, there are more hooks and pop elements than her previous albums. The song “Fair-weather” is a slow, breezy statement about shifting expectations and It while this is the kind of song you won’t find on early Fish albums, it’s easy to see it getting commercial airplay.
There are others in a similar mode such as the mid-tempo “Love Your Lies” and the title track, a ballad that offers a stark choice, imbued by the horns of Spake and trumpeter Tom Clary. “Dream Girl” is also a ballad, exploring the dilemma of a love not coming to fruition while she digs into her soul mode for the ballad “She Don’t Live Here Anymore,” also accented by the horns. In fact, when considering “Try Not to Fall in Love With You” and “Dirty,” seven of these eleven tunes, could loosely be termed ballads, quite a shift from Fish’s earlier albums, and perhaps a bit confounding, or disappointing to those who loved her guitar shredding act. Looked at another way, though, this is just part of her songwriting evolution, the groundwork laid by her 2017 albums.
She does frame this ballad-oriented melodic shift by two blues rockers, indicating she hasn’t abandoned that side just yet. She opens with the cigar-box guitar-driven, raging “Bulletproof” about how vulnerability is often mistaken for weakness and the closer “You Got It Bad (Better Than You Ever Had),” more of a mid-tempo with a bluesy tone that speaks to working toward our dreams and the careful balancing acts that often ensue.
These are Fish’s most fully realized songs yet and while the album displays aspects of her sound heard on her previous albums, it’s clearly moving toward a more pop, more densely produced sound. She is still developing. Enjoy the change but expect her to keep evolving.