Kansas bluser finds her own way

In the build up to “Belle Of The West” Samantha Fish said a couple of things that, when you put them together, explain a lot about the record.

First, she mused: “You should always get outside of the box. Challenging yourself is how you grow”.  She followed that up with the idea that: “I’m never gonna be a traditional blues artist, because that’s not who I am.”

Add those ideas together and what you get is “Belle Of The West.”

It is itself her second record of the year, following the covers album “Chilli’s And Fever” which, released in the spring,  saw her take on some lesser known old time R&B stuff and the 11 songs here have as much to do with country as they do with blues.

“American Dream” kicks in with a drum thud, but quickly adds some whistling and well picked out fiddle, giving it the feel of a rural hoedown.  It is a vibe that never really leaves the record.

Yet, as much as this belongs to the American heartland, it resonates with everyone, for two reasons. One is the quality of the playing (Fish has surrounded herself with some wonderful musicians here) but also there is a universal quality about the songwriting.

“Blood In The Water” has sweet as honey harmonies, married to a dark side that just about restrains itself. But if this is a barn dance then it is one that takes place in the shadows, and the guitar solo it possesses is a killer.

“Need You More” is a slice of Americana from the dirt roads. “There’s no one left for me to take it out on” sings a mournful Fish over the type of backing that Carrie Elkin and the like would be proud to call their own.

“Cowtown” is a genuine highlight. Equal parts The Faces And Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, her gift for writing catchy choruses and brilliant hooks is right to the fore. “Daughters” has the other side. Funky, with interesting drum patterns, it is claustrophobic but darkly superb.

Indeed, “Belle Of The West” is one of those records where you have to peel away the layers to have it reveal itself. Another of the self-penned songs “Don’t Say You Love Me” is lust filled but has a life of its own. “My last confession had something to do with you”, she drawls and you sense its best not to investigate further.

The title track, written by Jumbo Matheos (who plays Fender Rhodes and Harmonica) has the reassuring warmth of those classic old time country songs that MV heard growing up, while her version of RL Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie” – and which sees Lightnin’ Malcolm steal the show – beats with a rock n roll heart.

“No Angels” begins the final trio of songs and is blues at its most pure, and is, you might say, proof that the Devil has the best tunes. “Nearin’ Home” which sees Fish perform with Lillie Mae has beautiful harmonies, but is truly world-weary at the same time and while “Gone For Good” completes the album, it is perhaps best to think of those last few as one movement. Recorded, it seems, live, they crackle with a rare energy and show just what producer Luther Dickinson has got out of Fish this time around.

That said, he had enough talent to work with. Samantha Fish does things on her own terms, and the fact that she doesn’t – and indeed purposely won’t – fit into a neat box like music is supposed to, is to her eternal credit. “Belle Of The West” is a fine example of what can be achieved by forgetting the sterile and doing what comes naturally.

Rating 8.5/10

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