Chickaboom! features all of Tami Neilson’s expansive energy, yet feels lacking in other regards.
Let’s be honest – a huge appeal of independent country is its knack for evoking times long gone, often sounding decidedly vintage to honor musical heroes and remind listeners why we all choose to honor them, especially in country music.
Quality aside, however, it does lead to two easy criticisms: one being that, even with the huge dichotomy between the independent scene and its mainstream counterpart, it’s debatable if either sound is really “moving the genre ahead” so much as simply offering an agreeable sound to consumers who just want to hear what they like, even if it doesn’t push boundaries; the other criticism is that there’s a difference between indulging in retro tones and being beholden to them for the sake of producing bad-sounding, tacky albums (as if that’s how the “greats” did it).
Thus far, while it’s hard not to hear the obvious influences in Tami Neilson’s music, she’s managed to evade those aforementioned criticisms, mostly because, even if this is retro-sounding music, Neilson’s compositions are quirky enough to warrant the caveat that this is retro music with a new spin; and also because … Neilson is a dynamite vocalist, which feels like an enormously generic understatement. Moreover, her albums have steadily touched upon heavier themes as her career has progressed, from the concept of heavy personal loss of her father on 2016’s Don’t Be Afraid to 2018’s Sassafrass! exploring modern feminist issues. After all, while her home country of New Zealand has readily embraced her with open arms, over in the United States … well, Maren Morris’ “The Bones” just became the first multi-week No. 1 for a female artist in country music since Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” … in 2012.
Anyway, the point is her music is huge in scope and presentation, hence why it was curious to see how her latest album, Chickaboom!, looked to be a simpler, more stripped down affair with a heavier involvement from her family members. And I’m of two minds with this album. For one, any criticism I have with this project is apparently intentional from Neilson and her team in their approach, but it’s also fair to say that Chickaboom!, while fun and good like all of Neilson’s projects, isn’t quite punching as hard as its predecessors.
Again, though, the easy positive here is Neilson herself, a powerful performer who makes singing a song like “You Were Mine” look easy. But Neilson is also the sort of performer to really throw herself into her performances, like the menacing, humorously ironic laugh that permeates throughout “Ten Tonne Truck,” the way she doesn’t miss a beat on the double-time tempo “Tell Me That You Love Me,” or how dark and serious of a presence she maintains on “16 Miles Of Chain,” suggesting that this tale of devotion is one where “the ties that bind” is quite literal.
But again, those are the moments that feel heavier and more pronounced, which is coming from an album that’s aiming to be intentionally simpler in its presentation. It’s also still aiming for the high energy usually embedded in Neilson albums, of course, but it’s looking to do more with less. She touts herself as the “hot rockin’ lady of country, rockabilly, and soul” on the cover art, and while she’s imbued all three styles into her previous offerings, Chicakboom! is her heaviest foray into rockabilly. Brother Jay Neilson and Delaney Davidson bring real heft to their performances on bass and lead guitar, respectively, especially the low-end snarl of “Ten Tonne Truck,” the slow-creeping “16 Miles Of Chain” and the heavier grooves of “Hey, Bus Driver!” and “Tell Me That You Love Me.”
If anything, though, the album almost moves too fast at points, which is a note on the content. Again, the focus is on delivering a hearty message in a fun, more stripped-down fashion, but coming off of Sassafrass!, “Queenie, Queenie,” carried only by rhythm sticks and Neilson’s odd attempt at a nasally schoolyard chant, just doesn’t make much of an impact, though the line delivered at country radio certainly cuts at the right moment. And that, I guess, is my biggest criticism for Chickaboom! as a whole – I’ve heard Neilson deliver some of these themes and ideas better, not just in content but in instrumental presentation too. The overarching theme of trying to make it in an industry that doesn’t favor female artists is still highly present, and Neilson herself is going to make damn well sure no one stops her from chasing those dreams, but that’s also why I wish the album had went all in on its heavier tendencies and messages rather than try to be a lighthearted, fun project. Because of that, the best moments easily shine through on “You Were Mine” and “16 Miles Of Chain,” where the dramatic stakes are a little higher and there’s more going on with the presentation. Of course, too, “Any Fool With A Heart” is a nice change of pace after a whirlwind of tempo, especially when Neilson sounds divine matched against those glistening acoustics. Plus, it’s a better change of pace than “Sleep,” an odd, lullaby-like track that ends this particular album on a jarring note.
And all of this is to say that Chickaboom! is still good, and while the lighter stakes are intentional, I’ll readily admit my criticisms are a choice of preference, rather than anything being inherently “wrong” with this project. Still, at 10 tracks lasting just under 30 minutes, it does come and go quickly; so while I’d argue this isn’t the best showcase of Neilson’s talents, it’s arguably the best place to start, especially if you want to hear one of the most gifted vocalists in music today … or any day, for that matter.
- Favorite tracks: “16 Miles Of Chain,” “You Were Mine,” “Ten Tonne Truck,” “Any Fool With A Heart”
- Least favorite track: “Sleep”