To The Sunset
Silver Knife Records
It’s been quite a ride from her West Texas roots, playing fiddle for the Texas Playboys to becoming a Nashville singer/songwriter, but Amanda Shires doesn’t seem the sort to bide her time. She and her husband Jason Isbell have become the East Nashville version of Johnny and June or Waylon and Jessi – deservedly so.
In her previous five solo releases Shires didn’t venture far from a largely acoustic sound, with her delightful warbling voice and strong fiddle, but her latest, To The Sunset adds a sonic sheen to the 10 tracks that long-time fans might need a while to get used to. Produced by uber Nashville producer Dave Cobb (who also plays bass on the record, along with Isbell on guitar, drummer Jerry Pentecost and keyboardist Peter Levin), the record starts with “Parking Lot Pirouette”, full of backwards tape noises and distorted guitar that wail as Shires recounts a past assignation. Next up is “Swimmer”, a cut from her 2011 album Carrying Lightning, redone in a more indie-rock style, with Isbell’s guitar dropping delicate arpeggios in the background.
Shires wanted the songs to have atmosphere, and that they certainly do. It’s just an atmosphere that sounds more like St. Vincent or Bjork than say, Bob Wills. The insightful word play that was a highlight of her previous solo work is still there, but it’s competing now with drum machines, synths and Auto Tune. On some numbers, such as the closing “Wasn’t I Paying Attention?”, a Southern Gothic account of a man gone bad, it works. But on numbers such as “Mirror, Mirror” the production overwhelms the song, and will probably sound a bit dated a few years down the line. But as her husband sang convincingly last year on “White Man’s World” – “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound/But they’re never gonna let her” – Amanda Shires is that mama, and To The Sunset shows that she’s not waiting around for permission to do any damn thing she wants. Brilliant and unsettling in equal doses, one can’t wait to hear what she does next.