Championing roots music is like walking a tightrope: wear the influences too obviously, and you risk coming across as a generic facsimile aping an outmoded genre, yet if you manage to wrangle the components and imbue a new piquantness to the stew, you bring a reinvigorated retro vibe to the form. What divides the two is the conviction and charisma with which the music is conveyed. With plenty of both, Kansas City’s Samantha Fish solidly resides in the latter camp, and on her fourth LP, Chills & Fever, her craft takes on its freshest and most complex iteration yet.
Blending Memphis soul, Delta blues, and Motown R&B has always been the foundation of Fish’s oeuvre. With Chills & Fever, those genres continue to serve as touchstones throughout the album’s 12 tracks (and two bonus cuts), alternating their respective prominence. Injected into this template canvas, too, is a frenetic undercurrent of garage rock. This isn’t a complete surprise (considering that Fish recorded in Detroit with members of the Detroit Cobras), and what results is a rough and tumble energy that dominates the raucous numbers and bubbling beneath the more subdued, pensive songs. The ghosts of Otis Redding and Junior Kimbrough still haunt, but they’re joined at the party by the specters of Ron Asheton and Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Opener “He Did It” roars with a rockabilly fervor. Fish’s powerful voice is front and center, bolstered by blasts of brass instrumentation. In addition, backing “la-la-la”‘s give the tune a vintage girl group quality that’s cut with blistering guitar solos. At just three minutes in length, it’s a direct punch to the gut that lays the groundwork for what’s to come, such as the subsequent title track, which dials things down a bit for a subtler — but no less captivating — approach. Permeated with a noir feel, it would be at home in a Prohibition-era speakeasy, rife with jazzy inflections, sinuous saxophone lines, and mid-tempo percussion punctuating the melody. Fish lays on some thick seduction in her cooing, adding a dose of an addict’s desperation in describing the physical effects she gets from her lover’s presence.
The mood shifts again with the third song, a tender and dreamlike cover of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger”. An evocative number, it certainly has the power to elicit a wistful sentimentality without being maudlin. Its strength rests with Fish’s supple delivery; she shows restraint when necessary to let the number breathe and envelop you. On its heels, the remaining songs tend to go through a rotation of the auras established by the opening trio. Next, “It’s Your Voodoo Working” deftly updates the swamp blues of Muddy Waters, while “Hurts All Gone” oscillates from pathos-laden loneliness to flares of manic devotion. “The way you treat me only makes me love you more / ‘Cause, baby, your kind of love makes it worth crawling for”, Fish belts in the song’s most crucial moment.
A degree of redundancy does ensue around the album’s midpoint, though, as the instrumental paradigm ceases to waver much. Likewise, the lyrical content is largely unvaried from the previous tales of longing, love that’s lost-then-found-then-lost-again, and similar romantic sentiments, but such subjects are intrinsically linked to the genres Fish occupies. Two cuts that notably stand apart are “Either Way I Lose” and “Little Baby”. The former is reminiscent of Morphine in its opening sax crawl and down tempo lurch. It bides its time to build to a catharsis in the grandiose refrain, with Fish’s narrator dealing in self-deprecation and confliction over a two-timing man. As for the latter tune, it features a unique bluegrass-style twang in its bouncy rhythm and jangly guitar, at times briefly dropping out only to resurge with some urgent solos and Fish’s layered harmonies.
A cover of the Piedmont blues standard “Crow Jane” closes the actual album on a high note. It’s the most visceral and downright savage cut of the collection by far. Stomping percussion gives it an ominous feel from the start, and it’s enhanced by blaring sax and trumpet accompaniments and menacing, sidewinding distorted electric guitar wails. Amid the storm, Fish croons about how she gunned down the titular woman (opting against inverting the song’s traditional gender roles) without remorse; her voice filtered into a ghostly effect toward the end. You can nearly feel the heat rising from the track, like if it’s being performed in a Deep South juke joint on a humid summer night. While there are two bonus songs on the CD version—“Somebody’s Always Trying” and “I’ll Come Running Over”—“Crow Jane” is the logical way to wrap the record.
Does Chills & Fever break new ground? Not really, but it brings new life to the overgrown gravel path it traverses, and it does so with infectious revelry and gusto.