Allison Moorer, like her older sister Shelby Lynne, her husband Steve Earle and really, countless other artists from the swamplands outskirts of what is known as, among other labels, “Americana”, has always deserved to break into a bigger audience. That Nashville never embraced her in the way they embraced extremely lesser acts is both an egregious error and a clear warning sign to the sad, trite and derivative state of mainstream country music. Over the course of her decade-long career, Moorer has recorded an eclectic variety of styles, including blue-eyed soul, retrospective country, gritty folk and even a stab at modern pop, just to name a few. She’s rarely failed at any of those styles.
Whereas Moorer has often relied on her powerhouse, soulful and sweet alto to help salvage her weaker material (Getting Somewhere in particular), her latest studio album Crows actually finds the singer coming into her own as a matured and nuanced songwriter. Moorer was never a mediocre songwriter, but some of her material can be criticized for its obviousness in convention and arch. It was Moorer herself who used her cover album Mockingbird to refine and sharpen her own skills.
In that sense, and with the bird-themed titles, Crows is an obvious continuation of Mockingbird. Moorer has taken her influences and found new ways to intergrate them with her own eccentric songwriting to produce something that is truly striking, bold and original in ways that many contemporary country artist just can’t touch. (This is something that separates her from someone like Julian Plenti or Dawes.)
It’s as if Moorer has taken a black veil and placed it above her song choices on Mockingbird. Lead single “Broken Girl” takes the scorn Moorer conveyed on her cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” and embellishes it with a slick girl-group backing chorus. “When You Wake Up Feeling Bad” has the coarse, rough and authentic bite of Ma Rainey’s “Daddy Goodbye Blues”. Cat Power’s endearing and moving “Where Is My Love” oozes out of “Easy In the Summertime”, and the lush title track suggests Moorer has found a way to bring a sense of macabre to “Go, Leave”.
That Moorer is able to take those inspirations and fit them into her own aesthetic without every drawing attention to themselves is, in and of itself, worth noting. That doesn’t fully give proper accolades to Moorer’s own sense of detail in her writing. When Moorer is at the top of her game, she’s able to take the tragedy of her own personal narrative and fit that into a socio-economic setting that is unmistakably “Southern”. This is best seen on the jaw-dropping “Dying Breed” from Miss Forunate. Moorer is mostly on her A-game throughout the song cycle of Crows.
Moorer strips away the nursery rhymes that sometimes plagued her output and instead focuses on song narratives that break from traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. The result is richly rewarding, with songs like “Early in the Summertime” boasting a phenomenal story arc. “Should I Be Concerned?” contains a line that most singers would trip over, but Moorer brings grace to each syllable with her deceptively seductive lower range.
At its least, Crows is a fine example of what a good musicology student Moorer is. At its best, the album finds the singer tackling issues and heading into gloomy territory without every looking back. Moody, sensual, bleak and at times, even pious, Moorer’s latest album never commits to either side of being tragically beautiful or beautifully tragic.