Amythyst Kiah Delivers Devastating Rounder Records Solo Debut With ‘Wary + Strange’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Now we have lauded solo efforts from each of the four members of the all-women-of-color collective Our Native Daughters with this bold entry, Wary +Strange, from Chattanooga-bred Singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah. You may recall her Grammy-nominated song from the collective album, “Black Myself,” which she reimagines in a solo take here.  In addition, Kiah recently picked up three nominations from The Americana Music Association for Emerging Act of the Year, Song of the Year and Duo/Group of the Year with her sisters Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla of Our Native Daughters. While Kiah previously released two solo albums, 2013’s Dig and 2017’s Her Chest of Glass prior to the Our Native Daughters release, this one is already drawing much attention, due to the release of “Black Myself” as a single.

At heart, Kiah is a rocker but through her studies at East Tennessee State and the raw primarily banjo-driven music of Our Native Daughters, Kiah blends the alternative, slightly punkish rock with the old-timey sounds here. As you’d guess, she laces political commentary with personal observations examining grief, alienation, and ultimately self-acceptance along the way. We’ve gotten a taste of it in “Black Myself” – “I don’t pass the test of the paper bag/Cause I’m black myself/I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me/Cause I’m black myself”…and we get more here in songs such as “Firewater” – “So can you just leave me be/Been drenched in firewater won’t save me/I’ll forsake the path of filth and fleas/Can you just leave/Can you just leave/Can you just leave me be”. This is her way of relating her experiences as a Black and LGBT woman in a white suburban area in a Bible Belt town to let others know they shouldn’t feel alone and can overcome as well.  In that sense, the narrative is much like fellow singer-songwriter Sunny War. 

Produced by Tony Berg (Phoebe Bridgers, Amos Lee, Andrew Bird) the album mostly has a dense, rock sonic backdrop delivered by Wendy Melvoin (Prince & the Revolution, Madonna, Neil Finn), guitarist Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Dawes), bassist Gabe Noel (Kamasi Washington, Father John Misty), and pedal steel guitarist Rich Hinman (k.d. lang, Tanya Tucker, Caitlin Canty). The album was recorded in L.A. but rather interestingly Kiah had recorded it all before meeting Bert, scrapped it, and started completely over. 

This is heavy cathartic stuff that was difficult for her to sing about until the relief of singing the racism-examining, now emerging anthem “Black Myself” with the three other Black women in Our Native Daughters. “Wild Turkey” is about the aftermath of her mother‘s suicidal drowning in the Tennessee River. The music and background vocals in the track simulate the effect of being submerged underwater. That attention to detail is what drew her to Berg. She revisits her dependence on alcohol to help her through a difficult period in her late twenties with Mills’ guitar infused, swampy “Hangover Blues” – “I’d do the same damn thing anyhow/And if I did it all over again/I’d do the same damn thing anyhow.” Fortunately, “Firewater” has her looking back with a clearer perspective, a reckoning that the party phase is over. “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)” is a bluesy song about self-destruction where Berg impressed Kiah by using a bass harmonica instead of a bass guitar and added a Mellotron with a flute line on the chorus.  It was those kinds of instrumental flourishes that convinced her to rework the album. 

Kiah can wield the electric guitar well herself as you can discern in the several YouTube videos that have emerged and there’s a brief stretch on the opening to “Firewater’ but it’s her powerful, expansive, bold, and confident vocals that will draw the most attention, perhaps on the best display in “Tender Organs”.  She brings a more contemporary sound, infused with layers and effects, markedly different than that of her Our Native Daughters bandmates but her stories, like that of Russell’s (covered here last month), speak to deep wounds that only now can be comfortably addressed. As she says in the pedal-steel imbued “Ballad of the Lost,” – “And I am lost, maybe I have always been/And I believe that I can forgive/Can I forget, never”.  Kiah hits hard at the ugly aspects of white privilege throughout beginning with her opener “Soap Box,” but in so doing, unequivocally states that being Black is indeed beautiful too. This album will be a centerpiece of conversation, not just this year, but in the years to come too.

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