Oklahoma-born Audra Mae’s debut full-length album, The Happiest Lamb, can be roughly divided into three sections. After kicking off with a combination of wry humor and longing, the middle sags under a burden of po-faced sincerity, before the final act revitalizes the proceedings with some unexpected sonic turns.
Opener “The Happiest Lamb” features a jaunty tune and sly winking vocals, plus the sort of instrumentation that wouldn’t be out of place on the rootsier side of the country spectrum. “I once loved a shepherd, a charming handsome man,” she tells us. “One wave of his hickory staff and I’d follow him ‘round the land.” Further observations on the effect of the shepherd’s staff follow. Such wryness is less evident in “Millionaire” and “The River”, which set a tone of down-home wistfulness, epitomized by mournful, reverbed guitars and Audra’s lamentation that “a rich man today is a poor man tomorrow.” “Snakebite”, despite its honky-tonk title, opts for smooth vocals and an understated, yet still lively, acoustic guitar accompaniment.
The central portion of the record finds the weakest material taking center stage, as a series of slow-tempo singer-songwriter strum-alongs provide neither auditory nor lyrical interest. From “My Lonely Worry” to “Sullivan’s Letter,” these four songs prove woefully similar in sonic and emotional weight. “The Fable” is the strongest of the bunch, with hints of accordion and electric muscle underlying the acoustic lethargy, but even its potentially interesting story and Audra’s swooping vocals can’t overcome the dullness of its arrangement. That voice, which is asked to do the heavy lifting in this portion of the record, is full-throated and possessed of an impressive range, both musically and emotionally, but is nonetheless hampered by the listlessness of these tunes.
Then, just as the listener has resigned him- or herself to a homestretch of uninspired folk-country meandering, the final trio of songs infuses substantial verve back into the record. “Bandida” channels a vaguely Brit-folk vibe, complete with chiming mandolin, banshee wails and exhortations to “take your blade and armor… and I’ll battle at your side.” It’s hard to know how seriously to take all this, but the lines are sung with conviction and not a trace of a smirk, and hey, it’s tough to argue with those banshee wails. “Smoke” slows the tempo again, this time to the accompaniment of accordion and staccato guitar punctuation underlying its vaguely apocalyptic lyrics. An austere version of Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” closes out the album gracefully, with swelling piano and Audra’s voice and not much else. It may not touch the Bettye LaVette version—hey, what does?—but it’s very good nonetheless. It’s always a safe bet to round out the proceedings with a familiar and beloved tune, especially when you can belt it out as convincingly as Audra does here.
As an opening salvo, The Happiest Lamb impresses intermittently, but it remains an open question whether Audra Mae can produce a more consistently engaging set of songs.
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