The last time I discussed Amythyst Kiah here, it was within the context of her role in the Our Native Daughters supergroup, and while I feel like I should establish further context, I’m honestly not sure where to start. She broke through in the 2010s off of a roots-based style with a few scattered releases that are hard to find now, though 2013’s Dig is well-worth the search – a self-released, Gothic-tinged slice of Americana that may have been a little rough around the edges in the presentation, but made up for it in the writing and Kiah’s booming delivery.
After that, though … well, further success came thanks to the aforementioned Our Native Daughters collaboration, but as far as establishing further context on Kiah herself, her newest album is likely the best place to start. It’s her Rounder Records debut, the singles released ahead of it were utterly fantastic, and it’s been touted thus far as a real individual breakout for her. The only question left is, “is it?”
As far as my verdict goes, not only is Wary + Strange an excellent introduction to Kiah’s work, it’s also an album that sets the groundwork for where she can take her sound and ideas next. And while I’m not always crazy about the pivot in sound, taken as a whole it’s her best project yet, and easily a highlight of 2021 thus far.
Of course, it’s the pivot in sound that provides the best starting discussion point for this album – an electronic-tinged stab at folk and Americana that mostly works better than expected. There’s certainly times where it can sound a little heavy or overbearing – the squonky bass basically clips the mix on “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)” – but for the most part it’s all about establishing tone and atmosphere. Rarely ever does it feel like it’s there for pure show or to do anything other than complement the mix. Not that I’m complaining when the muscle is there, mind you. The reworked “Black Myself” may be the one moment of triumph here in its content and sharper electric guitar stabs off the warbled touches of organ and harmonica, but it’s a real highlight early on that helps establish some needed momentum off the more meditative “Soapbox.”
Which, on the note of that song, is also to say this album could be described as ambient at points, but I’d wager to say that all of that empty, negative space is intentional for supporting the content, especially when factoring in progression. I mean, the soft-plucked acoustics and low-end atmospheric elements help establish a harrowing picture for “Wild Turkey” as it is, but the fuller buildup later on feels well-earned and supportive without hampering the mood. And while there’s the part of me that prefers the softer, more delicate touches of that song or the beautifully warm, liquid pedal steel driving the gorgeous “Ballad of Lost,” I found myself more supportive of the shift than I expected. Again, “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)” feels overdone in execution and undercooked in actual concept, and the flatter tones of “Tender Organs” come across as clunky. But take “Hangover Blues,” where the messiness of those squonky, rattling tones of the bass harmonica, booming, echoed percussion and swampy electric guitars are there to establish another night of hangovers and giving in to her own vices, repeating a cycle she tries to break yet can’t. It’s the same even-keeled flow that defines a lot of what I love about “Sleeping Queen,” too. The messiness of the entire album is the point when the conclusion is one of recovery and self-acceptance. Tracks like that and “Wild Turkey” come early on the album, but they don’t have the final word in this story.
Before we get to what that story is, though, let’s address Kiah herself. There’s not much to say, really. She’s a huge, expressive presence behind the microphone that can claim confidence with ease on “Black Myself” just as effectively as she can sell the seedier expectations of herself on “Hangover Blues.” And when it’s more than just her story to tell … well, “Wild Turkey” is a real gut-punch (and for so many other reasons, at that). But while this album is mostly centered around the self-confidence and acceptance that comes through on “Black Myself” or the reprise of “Soapbox” (which, if I’m being honest, meanders far more than the original), it’s also about the journey to get there. So tracks like “Ballad of Lost,” “Firewater,” and “Tender Organs” still echo and cut through, but they’re coming from a more vulnerable, not-yet-secure place, and striking that balance well is a real asset here.
Beyond her struggles with alcoholism, though, this is also Kiah’s story of acceptance as a queer black woman, told bluntly through “Black Myself” but layered throughout this album, as well. It’s certainly a project where the political gets personal and the sequencing matters, like revisiting her mother’s suicide on “Wild Turkey” from an adult perspective and trying to find the forgiveness and empathy she couldn’t muster up before. Because when “Hangover Blues” comes right afterward, it’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken and can only start through the healing process. That’s the thing, too, in that there’s never really that moment where she ever reaches that ideal point or feels “normal,” so to say. She’s wary and strange, and the journey depicted on tracks like “Firewater” and “Ballad of Lost” is a lonely one, indeed.
But if there’s a way forward, it’s a simple one found through acceptance and love, where the hard part comes through in finding the mental capacity to get to that point. Which is to say that Wary + Strange certainly isn’t an easy listen, and that for fans of more straightforward material this might be a tougher sell. But between songs like “Wild Turkey” and “Ballad of Lost,” it’s a deeply rewarding one, not just for us, but for Kiah, too.
- Favorite tracks: “Wild Turkey,” “Ballad of Lost,” “Hangover Blues,” “Black Myself,” “Sleeping Queen”
- Least favorite track: “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)”