Back-Road Highways, by Chastity Brown
Suggested by Sarah Lewis
When I’m faced with reviewing a first-time suggester, there’s a certain weight of responsibility.
This is doubled if the album in question is by someone I’ve never encountered, or even heard of. And then doubled again if it transpires that the album is their only suggestion on the Masterlist. I’m immediately conflicted, as on the one hand I want to remain true to the project and judge whatever enters my ears on its own merits, but on the other I don’t want to come over as a judgmental dick and deflate anyone’s sincere intentions for their recommendations. A rather large part of me longs to simply toss off a gushing puff piece that concludes with “I give $NEWALBUM a splendid 8/10. Thanks for the recommendation, $NEWSUGGESTER!”.
Of course, my journalistic integrity keeps me from selling out quite so blatantly. I’ve not succumbed to that siren call quite yet, although with over six hundred reviews still to come, who know where my mind will be a few months from now?
So, going into this virgin recommendation with that issue in mind, I performed my due diligence with a spot of light Googling. Chastity Brown, it seems, is a multi-instrumental purveyor of Americana blues and folk that heralds from Minnesota. She brings guitar, bajo, piano and saxophone to the mix, along with her vocals, with five albums to her name in her thirteen-year career. She’s critically acclaimed, whatever that means, describes as “a banjo-playing soul-singer” and “a rocking, rolling encyclopaedia of Roots music.”
So far so good! I enjoy a singer-songwriter, and a folksy, rootsy, soulful blues Americana feel sounds brilliant. I have high hopes, and a palpable sense of relief. This should be a good review, maybe an eight!
Having now listened to the album, I wish I’d not researched beforehand, because my expectations were raised too high and I was left feeling unfulfilled.
Things start brightly. House Been Burning, the opening track, is a laid-back smoky country blues song with swishing drums, a sultry twanging guitar and matching vocal. When we get there is a mite more folky, with its opening harmonica and, again, a laid-back almost swing aesthetic. After You has a percussive Gospel lilt, with a Caribbean edge, and I Left Home is an acoustic blues guitar number that’s so evocative it takes my slot as standout song.
Sadly, the latter half of the album forgets that strong start and descends into a more standard schmaltzy sound. Lift Us has a layered sound but it’s still a touch too inoffensive, Say It displays an interesting take on typewriter hi-hats but offers nothing of note in the verses, and Slow Time is perfectly titled as it sluggishly drags its feet before exiting the building.
To be perfectly honest, I know this album fills a niche better than I’d admit. It’s the classic female singer-songwriter sound, and a lot of people will have a lot of love for Chastity Brown’s mellifluous vibes. I was simply hoping, after reading her resumé, that she’d lean a little harder into the corners.
After much vacillating, I’ve settled at 6/10 for Back-Road Highways. It has merit, and the highlights are particularly wholesome. I hope this score is enough to mollify the first-time suggester, as I’d be interested to hear more of their suggestions in the coming months.