Album Review: Various Artists, ‘My Black Country, The Songs of Alice Randall’

Novelist and songwriter Alice Randall has penned numerous hits for country singers from Radney Foster, Glen Campbell, and Trisha Yearwood. Yet, Randall has never felt as if her songs have captured their deepest meanings or connected with the characters in the songs and their yearnings or losses. My Black Country: The Songs of Alice Randall offers listeners the chance to hear Randall’s songs as if for the first time; the selection of her songs in this impressive collection are performed by artists that Randall calls her “posse of Black Country genius”: Rhiannon Giddens, Saaneah Jamison, Valerie June, Miko Marks, Leyla McCalla, Rissi Palmer, Allison Russell, Sistastrings, Adia Victoria, Sunny War, and Alice’s daughter Caroline Randall Williams. The album is produced by Ebonie Smith, whose credits include Hamilton and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer.

The album opens with McCalla’s plaintive declarations in “Small Towns (Are Smaller for Girls),” which begins sparsely but blossoms into a carnivalesque waltz, replete with swaying accordion strains. The musical movement from the spare opening vocals to the mid-tempo rhythms evoke the constraints of the limited opportunities the singer feels in the small town to the hope for freedom she has when she can move away from such a claustrophobic space. Sunny War’s spaciously unfolding, dreamily contemplative, and joyfully melancholy “A Solitary Hero” captures the exquisite pain and loneliness of the song’s narrator—a whore named Magdalene—as well as the paucity of heroes in a world of “Buffalo soldiers, Texas rangers.” Magdalene lives a more heroic life than any of the men whom society would call heroes.

Giddens delivers a haunting take on “The Ballad of Sally Anne,” a powerful condemnation of lynching and the ghosts it leaves behind, even among the living; it’s a spiraling blend of folk and jazz that echoes Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Saaneah Jamison vamps through swampy New Orleans jazz blues that’s shot through with whining pedal steel on “Get the Hell Outta Dodge,” and she sends shivers up our spines with her soaring vocals.  Rissi Palmer’s crystalline vocals blossom soulfully as she asks “Who’s Minding the Garden?” and Russell’s ethereal gospel-inflected “Many Mansions” captures the yearning of the homeless for the hope of a home that is open to all people—“In my mother’s house there are many mansions.” Miko Marks turns in a soul-searching version of “I’ll Cry for Yours,” while Caroline Randall Williams delivers a take on “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” that weaves the electric soul of Janell Monae and the space jazz rhythms of Cannonball and Nat Adderley’s Soul Zodiac with hip hop and includes an homage to the song’s co-writer Matraca Berg.

My Black Country celebrates Alice Randall’s artistry and her brilliance. In her book of the same title—part memoir and part music history—Randall provides an intimate glimpse at the making of the album, and she writes that every track “was a substantial feast of sound, voice, and instruments. Ear candy if your idea of candy is a perfectly roasted to caramelized perfection sweet potato.” The songs on My Black Country have, in fact, never sounded better.


 My Black Country: The Songs of Alice Randall is available HERE



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