Sandy Carroll,
Just As I Am
(Catfood, 2011)

Sandy Carroll,
Unnaturally Blonde
(Catfood, 2013)

One ordinarily associates the El Paso-based Catfood label with blues and r&b. Thus, someone coming to a Sandy Carroll album such as Unnaturally Blonde might naturally expect such. Here, however, singer-songwriter Carroll communicates a musical language as much from rock, folk and country as from straight-ahead blues. From it one might conjure up an image of a less morose Lucinda Williams. Perhaps one might even add a less pretentious one. While Williams declares her sole contemporaries to be Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Carroll seems content to traffic in songs with quotidian, but no less firm, virtues. You might call it no-frills pop music with aspirations to durability. Unlike most of the competition, it doesn't feel at all disposable.

Unnaturally Blonde's title tune is a light-hearted rejoinder to the sorts of tired blonde jokes that are reason in themselves to stay out of bars. Here, as on most cuts, she's joined by a seasoned studio band that takes care to keep things supple and sharp while not throwing in a single extraneous note. Call it the sort of thing you'd hope to hear in a first-rate bar band, one that would draw you back into the joint after the dumb blonde jokes had driven you away.

The other nine cuts all address life concerns, mostly those associated with relationships, sex, conflict and social protest. In the last category, "Can't Make the Devil Pay" and "Somebody's Gotta Pay" are among the album's most strongly r&b-oriented, and also two of the standouts. But it's the final cut, with single acoustic-guitar accompaniment, that's likely to put the tears in your eyes. "Waltzing to Sunset (Pappy's Song)," celebrates the life and decency of an old man whose last days approach.

If you enjoy Blonde, you might seek out her previous Catfood release, Just As I Am, which is based more intensely in the rooted Memphis rock 'n' roll of Carroll's home territory. Again, the well-crafted songs provide emotional satisfaction, particularly the gripping r&b-accented story-song "Romeo & Juliet." In a just world, or at least in one where once they played great tunes like this one, it would be flying out of every car radio in the land.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 December 2013

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