Bella White is an artist I’ve had on my radar for some time now but haven’t properly written about yet. It’s a curious case, too, because while, at a glance, her 2020 debut Just Like Leaving seems to fit in well with albums from similar rising Appalachian upstarts like, say, Pony Bradshaw or Cole Chaney, there’s more involved here. She originates from Calgary, Alberta but her father is a Virginia native who played in bluegrass bands as she grew up, hence why there’s a certain ramshackle charm to that debut album (that I should have written about and would have, if not for the late timing).
Anyway, she’s now signed to Rounder Records to release her sophomore album, Among Other Things, and it’s immediately telling that there’s a more robust presentation and budget at play here compared to that more lo-fi debut. It also feels more fully formed as a whole, rooted less overtly in that Appalachian and bluegrass styling and expanded to include acoustic-driven Americana and country into the fold, all still with that same general ramshackle feel.
Granted, “feel” is the key word there, given that this does seem meant to play out as one cohesive statement. It’s reflected mostly in White’s offbeat, stream-of-consciousness-like delivery, but also in a lot of the ragged weariness evident in that delivery and the content itself. I’d call it youthful if there was much of a silver lining or greater fantasy at play here, but this is more realistic and disillusioned – an album aimed at a younger audience full of people that feel much older than they truly are. And I’m of two minds on that approach, because while this album’s general lack of groove, melodic flow, and compositional variety can make it blend together a bit too often and too quickly, there is a cohesive core and general weariness that can be alluring at its best.
Part of this is because of White herself, who really has one of those piercing voices that cuts to the front of the mix and demands attention without trying hard to do so. And that’s also reflected in the generally anxious feeling of this project, which mostly captures that feeling of striking out on one’s own for the very first time and growing up and learning lessons in a way that only come from experience and, yes: failure. Opener “The Way I Oughta Go” pretty much hits all of those notes, capturing feelings of personal anxiety and restlessness that comes in wondering what to do with life and drowning in the noise of everyone’s suggestions for you, ending with her taking off to Tennessee.
And from there … well, it’s mostly about living. What I appreciate most is how introspective and confessional White gets with her writing, hitting on a lot of uncomfortable fears that feel brave to admit and honestly relatable for anyone at that point in life. But like I said before, it also means it’s easier to highlight the album as a whole for that rather than find the specific highlights. This album feels like it pieces together fragments and snapshots from various points of a specific journey – a sprawling soundscape, if you will – which means certain tracks, like “Flowers On My Beside,” work better as continued examples of thesis statements made beforehand.
But it also means she’s going to let listeners into her world and experience her own highs and lows, from being let down once again by love and bad partners on “Dishes” and “Break My Heart,” to struggling with feelings of imposter syndrome and the modern music industry on “Numbers” and “The Best of Me,” the latter of which being particularly brutal for wanting so badly to rise above and knowing bad mental health is robbing her of happiness, but is hard to actually work through, let alone overcome to find clarity. But it’s also about learning to find a way and purpose to live for more than just one’s self, which tempers more outward, observational cuts like “Rhododendron” and especially “Marilyn,” where she looks on at a mistreated, abused woman with empathy for her situation as a soul who probably suffered from the same insecurities and wound up in an unfortunately all-too-common situation with someone undeserving of her.
But it’s also what informs great late-album tracks like “The Best of Me” and the title track, where White can finally use those experiences to put the pieces together and find her own way to grow and move on, eventually turning from Tennessee to British Columbia and realizing there’s value and wisdom found even in those rough patches.
Again, it’s not an easy album to confront, and it is a tough listen in more ways than one – especially in trying to find the moments that can pop or feel more immediate or magnetic. I definitely enjoyed the brighter kick through the organ that anchors the upbeat shit-kicking, honky-tonk kiss-off of “Break My Heart,” especially when it still reels slow enough to burn stridently. And, though acoustic in nature, the occasional flourishes of fiddle, pedal steel, keys, and strings are always welcome to fill in the cracks on songs like “The Way I Oughta Go,” “Dishes,” and “Marilyn,” even if I think it could have used a bit more muscle or variety to keep it from dragging at points. But it is, again, also mostly offbeat and meant more to feel like fragmented slow-burn, which I still can’t tell if I just respect more than outright love.
But then again, the frank weariness is also part of the unfortunate point in speaking to this album’s hardbitten nature, where even if slight clarity is found by its end, it hasn’t come without its personal cuts or mental toll – nor does it mean the road ahead will be easy in capturing a wisdom beyond her years. Even still, it does mean there’s a lot of strength and maturity found that can always act as guiding points, and there’s something cathartic to be found there, too. All in all, then, while I don’t quite know if Among Other Things is necessarily the better jumping-on point for White’s discography, it is the step forward that showcases a lot of potential – and I’m looking forward to seeing what it can further unleash.
- Favorite tracks: “The Way I Oughta Go,” “Dishes,” “Break My Heart,” “Marilyn,” “Rhododendron,” “The Best of Me”
- Least favorite track: “Worth My While”
2 thoughts on “Album Review: Bella White – ‘Among Other Things’”
Thanks for the introduction. I’m liking what I hear so far!
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I, too, was bit late in discovering Bella White. I had noticed the praise for her first album near the end of 2020, but I didn’t actually end up listening to it until 2021 and it’s a great album. It would have been pretty high on my 2020 favourites if I had listened to it sooner. (For some reason, I really enjoy listening to it while cooking).
When the singles came out last year (“The Way I Oughta Go” and “Rhododendron”), I was excited since they are so good, but I wasn’t sure if they were part of an upcoming album or not. This was my most anticipated album of this year once the release date was announced and it doesn’t disappoint. It jumped up to #1 on my favourite albums of the year so far and it gets better with each listen.
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