Few albums have captured our hearts this year as much as Audrey Spillman's "Neon Dream", it's an album that rewards and reveals more with each listen and depending on your mood and the track of choice it can be beguiling, sultry or hypnotic. For much of the album Audrey and husband and producer Neilson Hubbard require remarkably little instrumentally to make something so compelling. It seems only yesterday but it was actually about 2 and 1/2 years ago that we were raving about the excellent Buffalo Blood album that they worked on with Dean Owens and Joshua Britt and anyone who loved that album will surely be equally rewarded with this effort.
The album starts with the first single "Austin Motel", which contains the phrase that gives the album its title. It perfectly sets the scene for the albums sound, big open spaces punctuated with attention grabbing percussion while the guitars set the mood rather than the driving hooks of each song.
"We watch as the sun goes down over the Austin Motel
On the edge of what I know is about to break
You turn the shades to black, your hand up my back
And we fade into this Neon Dream"
Audrey delivers the lines in a steamy dreamy way and there seems little doubt as to how iintoxicated with love she has become with the following lines
"I know right now could be exactly what I need
I swear as long as I'm breathing, Honey I'm never leaving"
The pace of the percussion picks up and the sound becomes a wonderful swathe of guitars as the pair drive to
"Watch the stars show out"
before the track once again returns to Audrey gently singing the final words in this epic opener.
"Summertimme" is indeed the 1935 George Gershwin classic from "Porgy & Bess", covered by everybody from Ella Fitzgerald to Lana Del Ray and The Fun Boy Three. Audrey's version is characterised by a slow ever present drum beat, the vocals in the opening verse equally almost tumble from Audrey's lips, at times little more than a breathy whisper. By the second verse Audrey is vocally in full swing, while the music has the feel of a film noir detective movie, with a jazz trumpet and dreamy guitar licks. There's a hot sultry feeling to the track and Audrey's parting line of "Don't You Cry" is simply dripping with emotion.
By contrast "Beyone The Blue" is probably the closest the album gets to a standard Americana track, opening with Audrey's cooing vocal turned into a swirling echo before launching into an uptempo affairr. The impression of a full on band on closer listening is really mainly the drums and an acoustic guitar, somehow the sporadic pedal steel and piano invote the listener to aurally fill in the gaps. With a sumptuous instrumental middle section the song passes by almost as a blur.
Any thoughts that Audrey was going to cover Rick Astely's "Never Gonna Give You Up" are hastily dispelled in the opening few bars, with an intruiging opening of a singular repeating drum sound and some selective piano and guitar elements - Audrey arrives to set the scene over this stark setting
"Got this feeling for you baby, burning underneath my skin
After years of being empty. my heart is full again"
In an unexpected twist the chorus becomes a feel good calypso lilt with a jaunty guitar sound and Audrey delivering the title of the song in a delightful upbeat way - the expression of love being the core message of the song. Once again the instrumental breaks are sublime, complete with a dreamy trumpet solo.
Inspired by a childhood photograph "Red Balloon" is a song about letting go. With just an acoustic guitar for company Audrey paints the scene so perfectly that the listener can easily visualise the characters of the song, Audrey and her father.
"Got this memory of us down by the shore - ships coming in from sea
And you, in your faded blue jeans and me holding a Red Balloon"
It's a vivid memory captured forever by a camera, an idyllic moment frozen in time
"This picture held up in a frame is the only thing that feels true
A moment where we held the sun, there wasn't anyone, to tear it from you"
The "letting go" seems to be about cutting those parental ties. allowing yourself to establish your own identity,
"White River" is a dark narrative about the plight of the Cherokee Native Americans, that first made an appearance of the "Buffalo Blood" album, both versions equally rich in atmosphere, all but placing you on the prairie as you listen
"Walk along the waters edge, hush now child we're almost there, to that land promised to us
Don't you cry, don't you fret or mourn with tears the things we left while they lead us one by one"
"Breakthrough" sees Audrey cut loose in an Adele "Rolling In The Deep" style, crossed with The White Stripes to produce an irresistable rocker. Audrey proves proves to be equally adept at belting out a tune as she is at being quiet and sultry. From the pounding drum beat via the scuzzy guitar through to the trumpet this is a glorious treat,
From one extreme to the other with "Little Light Of Mine" initially seeming to be little more than an acoustic guitar and Audrey's crystal clear voice, the additional little flourishes on piano and electric guitar barely cause a ripple on the surface and yet add so much to the overall effect. The sheer beauty of the lyrics matched by Auderey's perfect delivery.
"Before I firstheard your voice I knew it'd be my favourite sound
Before I first held you close, I knew i'd never want to let go
Sweet Little Love Of Mine"
The album closes with "Go On and Fly", a song written as her stepmother was dying of lung cancer and sung at her request at her funeral. The words beautifully capture the poignancy of a final parting.
"Beautiful loving heart I know you gotta go - gonna cross the rivers end and make your way back home
No more pain, no more suffering, nothing here to keep you tied, when the clouds open up, go on and fly"
Needing just an acoustic guitar with faint organ and piano sounds. Audrey says goodbye to her Stepmother and effectively to us with an exquisitely delivered vocal for which she is joined by Garrison Starr to make a wonderful blend.
A joyous journey across a gamut of emotions, this is not just an album for featuring highly in everyones end of year selections in 2021, it is one you'll return to for many years to come where it will continue to reveal just what a wonderful piece of work it is.