Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago Steps Out Solo On Pulsating ‘Outside Child’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

In step with her three other sisters in Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCella, and Amythyst Kiah) Allison Russell is stepping out solo. The Montreal-born, now Nashville-based Russell is a poet, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist known also for her work with her partner JT Nero in Birds of Chicago. Outside Child is produced by Nashville’s acclaimed Dan Knobler who assembled a high-profile cast of musicians including Erin Rae, Jamie Dick, Joe Pisapia, The McCrary Sisters, Ruth Moody, Yola, and, of course, JT Nero. Like her bandmates in Our Native Daughters Russell plays banjo but also other stringed instruments and clarinet.

Russell had a most traumatic childhood, and this album is essentially a cathartic release of pent-up emotions she has kept from the public until now, thematically not unlike Allison Moorer’s Blood.  Yet, Russell sings these songs deceptively, by turns elegantly and jubilantly, bringing ancestral balladry that she delivers in both French and English, with hints of blues, R&B, and country. Russell fled her abusive home as a teenager, essentially living a bed hopping existence and a healthy share of street living until she found music. Even then, she spent most of her career until now dodging that past. She has spent much time exploring the generational, racial, and social roots of the pain she suffered, saying, “From 2019, when I was first trying to first start talking about things, there’s been much more integration of my own identity and self.” She is wife, married to Nero, and a mother of a daughter, so maturity and responsibility likely plays into this too. 

Russell made three albums with Nero as Birds of Chicago but perhaps attracted most notice with her song “Quasheba, Quasheba” on the Our Native Daughters project as ode to the strength of an ancestor of Russell’s who was captured in her native Africa and enslaved here.  This story is also at the root of her newfound strength and confidence. The album was recorded in three brisk days in Nashville in September of 2019. It features “4th Day Prayer,” the first song she wrote and the beginning of awakening a period of inquiry into her past. A few of the songs such as the gorgeous single “Nightflyer” touch on motherhood – “I am the mother of the evening star/I am the love that conquers all,” a line that Russell calls the most defiantly triumphant one she’s ever written. She begins with “Montreal,” singing in both French and English, with a voice so beautiful that it’s difficult to imagine the pain she recollects. 

“Persephone,” replete with a brief clarinet solo, is positively exultant as Russell sings an ode to her teenage girlfriend whose home provided refuge for Russell during her teenage years. “The Runner” swaggers confidently, spurred by the background vocals and a steady, emphatic beat. “Hy Brasil” stands out for its simple yet memorable nursery-rhyme like melody that belies its atmospheric, ethereal intro. “The Hunters” glides along with several extended musical family members helping her along while “the banjo-driven “All of the Women” summons a more primitive vibe, similar to that laid down with Giddens, McCalla, and Kiah. Her clarinet leads us into “Poison Arrow,” a spare track revealing the pure clarity of her voice, delivered almost like a soliloquy, with just enough musical and vocal support to give it some color. She goes even further, taking “Little Rebirth” alone on the banjo, making it practically a cappella. She stays in this singular mode, closing with the acoustic “Joyful Motherfuckers,” expressing her hard-won release from the burden of the pent-up emotions – “I’ll be a child in the garden, 10,000 years and counting.”

Russell’s is a story of survival that she conveys brilliantly in her writing and singing. That she pulls it off so gracefully is the real stunner. Due to her preceding reputation, her wrenching life story, and her “high road” delivery, she will garner even more attention with this release. 

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