“Boarding now; going South.” So sings Kate Campbell on “Montgomery to Mobile”, the fourth track on her new album, 1000 Pound Machine. The South, of course, is where Campbell’s music has always headed, and where it’s sprung from. Across the albums she’s recorded since her 1995 debut Songs From The Levee, the Mississippi-raised Campbell has crafted incisive, evocative songs that tell vivid stories rooted in the past and present of her native South. Drawing upon a variety of musical styles (gospel, folk, country, and rock) and addressing topics ranging from Civil Rights to spiritual enlightenment, Campbell’s songs have avoided didacticism or dogma to focus instead upon the lives of individuals experiencing both momentous change and daily tribulations and joys. Her touching and frequently witty songs serve to subtly complicate reductive conceptions of the American South, a land still too frequently perceived, as her masterful song “Look Away” notes, in terms of “black and white.”
Following last year’s excellent live album Two Nights in Texas, 1000 Pound Machine is Campbell’s first album of new material since 2008’s Save the Day. The title alludes to the piano, around which most of this album’s arrangements have been developed. Overall, the record doesn’t match Campbell’s most affecting work—2003’s Monuments and her 2005 masterpiece Blues and Lamentations—for impact. But it does offer some pleasures. The standout tracks include the aforementioned “Montgomery to Mobile”, which continues Campbell’s exploration of race relations and Southern iconography by daring to imagine Rosa Parks and George Wallace sitting together on a Greyhound bus ride; the ineffably catchy “Wait For Another Day”, which puts a series of pressing duties on hold in order to attend to a loved one; the homesickness waltz “Red Clay After Rain”; the beautiful instrumental “The Occasional Wailer” and the tender tribute of “God Bless You Arthur Blessit”. Some tracks don’t quite ignite as hoped: in particular, the languid, twanging “Alabama Department of Corrections Meditation Blues” doesn’t fulfil the promise of its great title (or maximise Emmylou Harris’s cameo), while the uplift offered on “I Will Be Your Rest” and “Walk With Me” is more generic—and less lyrically inspired—than usual. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here, even if the album lacks the richness of texture of Campbell’s finest work.