The short version: The newest self-titled record from the Steel Blossoms is filled with personality and charm.
- Favorite tracks: “Revenge,” “Killed A Man,” “Heroine,” “Trailer Neighbor,” “Kentucky’s Never Been This Far From Tennessee”
- Least favorite track: “You’re The Reason I Drink”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: It’s refreshing when you can start a review talking about an act that markets themselves well.
Granted, country music artists haven’t quite taken full advantage of the Internet age the way they probably should have by now, but one positive attribute from this decade is how independent artists have made their way into the mainstream conversation.
And thus far, an act like the Steel Blossoms are on their way toward cultivating a lasting fan base. Comprised of former elementary school teachers Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser, the Steel Blossoms released their debut EP, Year Number One, in 2015 along with a full-length album, Country Enough, one year later. Since then, they’ve been the first act signed to Billy Jam Records where their new self-titled album feels like their true introduction to the world.
Yet it’s how they’ve built that fan base that’s most intriguing, cultivating their following through house concerts and engaging with fans one-to-one in a way that should happen in the social media age, yet doesn’t, if only because not every “fan” on social media is necessarily supportive (in other words, there are certain people artists don’t understandably want to engage with).
And judging by their newest release, hopefully that fan base only continues to grow, because this is easily one of the most unique albums I’ve heard this year. The performances are charming and filled with personality, the technical ability is excellent and well-executed, and while the two singers aren’t related to one another, they’ve got the kind of chemistry you really only hear in sibling duos. In other words, my only regret with the project is that I’m covering it so late.
The best way to describe their lyrical style is quirky, as whether the album is opting for humor or cutting all too deep, there’s rich detail evident throughout. This isn’t necessarily a concept album, though there is an interesting note to make about the sequencing of this album. Some have noted an inconsistency in tone with this album, which is fair, though I’d argue the Steel Blossoms actually are trying to show both perspectives in their framing. If there is a thematic core running throughout this album, it’s a look into the perils that come with living in a small town and showcasing the residents’ various coping mechanisms. I’m admittedly not wild about “You’re The Reason I Drink” (though that’s a note on the production), but the narrator here resorts to alcoholism to endure her husband. Yet it’s telling that, while we never understand what exactly makes this husband so unbearable, the following track, “Revenge,” is told from the perspective of a dead wife who comes back to haunt him following years of abuse. Of course, this is all simply lyrical interpretation, but it’s hard not to want to put the pieces together.
Still, there’s a yin and yang quality to this album that’s surprisingly effective. The aforementioned former track is a jubilant, if admittedly overblown, humorous track. The latter track, however, is a Gothic fiddle tune that is deadly chilling, and it’s a testament to their abilities as lyricists when they go farther with an unconventional topic than you otherwise really want them to. And that shows itself once again in the following tracks, “Trailer Neighbor” and “County Line.” In a similar fashion, while “County Line” tells a very real story of how divisive class and welfare are in America, especially in those small towns, “Trailer Neighbor” is the lighter track that shows how people get by, even if it’s not exactly anyone else’s dream of a good life.
Of course, that’s not to say the tracks are dependent one another or can’t stand on their own. “Trailer Neighbor” is the fun mix of Kacey Musgraves’s “The Trailer Song” and Alan Jackson’s “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” that also showcases the duo’s strong sense for melodies and damn good hooks.
Still, it’s those dual perspectives that run throughout this album. And with any track here, the Steel Blossoms are going to be brutally honest in their framing and lean into situations as far as they can go. “Heroine,” for example, pulls no punches in framing the protagonist (or anti-hero) or her actions as the reason her life spiraled downward, even despite the subtle references to poverty and its subsequent vices made elsewhere on this album. Yet it’s not meant to cast judgment on anyone else in that situation. Instead, it walks that fine line between consequence and empathy that’s executed excellently. And, as you might have guessed by now, we have “Killed A Man” to balance it out where the title really speaks for itself (major points should be awarded for the brilliant continuity of the story, for the record).
Prosser is the primary vocalist here, reminiscent most of Sunny Sweeney in terms of her tone. And with an album that covers as much ground as this one does, she’s convincing playing both the role of the joyous, perhaps delusional small town resident and the voice of the downtrodden when the time comes. Still, it’s when Zebley’s harmony kicks in that the duo really shine. Enough good can’t be said about the interweaving of the two on “Revenge,” where Zebley’s lower register helps add to that sinister tone. And while “Kentucky’s Never Been This Far From Tennessee” sticks out and is an odd closing track compared to other songs here, it still works as an individually excellent country song where those harmonies are what make the track so appealing.
But whereas Prosser mostly handles the lead vocals, it’s Zebley who’s the multi-instrumentalist of the two. And on the note of instrumentation and production, again, my commentary is mostly positive, though “You’re The Reason I Drink” is the one track that seems to be missing something in the low-end, particularly during the verses.
Still, it’s the execution where this album shines. It’s as if every note is curated just right and at just the right time – the long, drawn out fiddle opening of “Revenge” or the thump of the drum that signals something malicious is coming with every beat, the jumpy percussion lines of “Trailer Neighbor” or “Killed A Man” mixed well with jazzy fiddles and, in the case of the latter track, an excellent bass line, the aggressive punch to the fiddle on “You Ain’t Sleeping Over” to match its lyrical tone, or the lush, beautiful twin fiddles that drive out “Kentucky’s Never Been This Far From Tennessee.” For a duo still young in their career, when you match excellent technical skills with the right execution and killer melodies and hooks to boot, you get one of the most enjoyable albums of this year.
Again, though, it’s understandable why people might read the variety here as an inconsistency in tone. And if there’s any further nitpicks I have with this album, it’d be with “Innocent,” which, while carrying a nice sentiment, does cross the line of being cloying. And for an album brimming with personality, “Pick Me Up,” while enjoyable, does scan more as a generic drinking song rather than anything that stands out on its own.
But in terms of replay value and enjoyability factor, the self-titled album by the Steel Blossoms earns high marks. The content and the harmonies are engaging and unique, and when the album simply sounds as good as it does, it’d be a crime for the Steel Blossoms to not find a wider audience. Steel Blossoms is the kind of album that’s adventurous in its execution and showcases a bright future for the duo.