Review: Tami Neilson captivates on fifth album, ‘Kingmaker’

Tami Neilson


(excluding music)

4 out of 5 stars

Anyone looking for an Adele or Lady Gaga style diva in roots music can stop looking now. Tami Neilson fills in those big cowboy boots, and more, on her fifth outing since 2015.

Pride from Auckland, New Zealand (via Canada) hasn’t given up its rockabilly roots on Kingmaker. But she magnifies her sound and vision, moving on to a handful of lavish, big-screen, melodramatic ballads that spice up this 10-song set, sending it into classical territory.

It’s no secret that Neilson’s quivering voice, somewhere between kd lang and Nancy Sinatra’s more strident work, was ready for the cinematic treatment it relishes. Opening with the slow-building title track, it burns against a single reverberant guitar, building suspense until a minute when choirs, lavish orchestration and echo chamber explode into a cinematic mini-spectacle.

She returns to that moody vibe for the lavish spaghetti western shimmer of “Baby, You’re a Gun,” a song inspired by Dolly Parton’s autobiography, with fast strings defining a sprawling soundstage.

Even when the approach drops a few notches like on the sassy “Mama’s Talkin’,” which condemns men who act like big shots, Neilson fills the room with his arena-ready pipes. When she unloads like Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger” as the violins soar in “The Grudge” — a chilling tale of her parents’ struggle and a pledge not to let old grudges continue — that’s the time to give goosebumps.

Willie Nelson lends his distinctive chirp to the “Beyond the Stars” waltz taking on the role of Neilson’s father in a bittersweet duet he accurately describes as Patsy Cline meets Marty Robbins.

The short 33-minute album ends with heavy psychedelic wah-wah guitar swamp blues percussion as Neilson once again confronts sexism in the music industry with the subtlety of a military tank.

Each of his releases has pushed the boundaries of the singer-songwriter, leading to this: his finest, most idiosyncratic and captivating work for which, to his credit, there are few comparisons.

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