Photo: Sabin Holloway / Courtesy of Conqueroo

Big Hair, Big Voice, Big Twangy Guitars, Tami Neilson’s Back

Rockabilly singer Tami Neilson hosts a brief but potent party straight from New Zealand on her new album, Chickaboom!

Tami Neilson
Outside Music
14 February 2020

Need a break from the 21st century? Throw Tami Neilson‘s new album Chickaboom! into your preferred music player and, for the next 26 minutes and 13 seconds, you’ll be hurled into a word of twangy guitars, rockabilly rhythms, big hairdos, and even bigger singing. On Chickaboom! Neilson, a New Zealand resident by-way-of-Canada, proves herself to be the heiress apparent to legendary rockabilly/country queen Wanda Jackson. Neilson produced the album and wrote or co-wrote every song on Chickaboom! – aside from album-closer “Sleep”, written by the album’s lead guitarist and co-producer, Delaney Davidson – and it’s easy to imagine nearly any of these songs showing up on a Wanda album circa 1962.

The danger with any artist who is deeply rooted in a specific era or genre is that the music could be perceived as kitschy and derivative, rather than as a fresh take on an older style. Neilson transcends this potential dilemma with that huge voice of hers, but also by writing a solid set of songs that manage to cover quite a bit of entertaining ground throughout the brief album. And that brevity is important: Neilson clearly intends to get started, blow the listener away with one cool song after another, and then leave them wanting more. It’s a winning strategy.

Chickaboom! opens strong with Neilson growling her way through “Call Your Mama”, a rockabilly rave-up with R&B undertones. “Changed the locks, threw your box of things / Out on the street, but sure as hell kept your ring,” she informs her hapless man, who best not be thinking he’s irreplaceable. “Call Your Mama” is followed by a pair of road songs, “Hey, Bus Driver” and “Ten Tonne Truck”, that nicely encapsulate the general feel of the album.

In addition to Davidson, Neilson’s brother Jay is a key contributor to Chickaboom! and the trio stick to an appropriately stripped-down production of acoustic and electric guitars, plus bass and drums throughout the album. Sometimes, the songs are even more basic: “Queenie, Queenie” is mostly just percussion and backing vocals courtesy of a couple of kids, and it might just remind you a little bit of “Iko Iko”.

Neilson occasionally slows things down. “You Were Mine” and “16 Miles of Chain” are torchy country/blues hybrids, while “Any Fool with a Heart” is a snappy acoustic duet sung with Jay Neilson. “Sleep” closes the album on a decidedly dreamy note. These diversions bring a pleasing variety to Chickaboom!, without adversely affecting the party atmosphere.

Neilson revs up the closing moments of Chickaboom! with its penultimate tune, a righteous and rollicking tribute to “Sister Mavis” Staples. “Send in Sister Mavis / Mahalia and Rosetta, no, you won’t find a better / Holy trinity to save us / Send sister Mavis,” preaches Neilson, and you have to cry, “amen!” to that sentiment.

There is at least one tiny reference to the 21st century on Chickaboom! That’s on “Queenie Queenie” when Neilson notes, “Mama’s gotta hustle, do another show / ‘Cause they won’t play a lady-o on country radio.” In the case of Tami Neilson and Chickaboom!, that is clearly country radio’s loss.

RATING 7 / 10