Tami Neilson is woke. Her new album SASSAFRASS! is a rockabilly-infused roots album that confidently calls for equality. Her liner notes emphatically dedicate the album to “every woman and man, fighting the good fight for equality”. The Canadian-born, New Zealand-based singer/songwriter’s newest release, out June 1 from Outside Music, is a rollicking and gritty album. SASSAFRASS! is a sly act of subversion as Neilson’s vocals and lyrics are unapologetic while the music unleashes resolute assurance. In doing so, she imbues the album with a pertinent sense of society while projecting her vision of progress.
Neilson comes out swinging with the opening track “Stay Outta My Business“. The song introduces Neilson’s full vocal range which she continues to feature for the album’s duration. The track has a clear rockabilly vibe as listeners hear country, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul music overlap. She toys with the specters of Wanda Jackson’s electric vocals while her lyrics embrace modernity. The track is an absolute feminist anthem. Neilson uses each verse to feature differing double standards imposed onto women. As she sings “a woman stay home to raise the babies / ‘Must be nice to do nothing, must be lazy’ / And so she go out to make the money / ‘How can you leave your babies, you’re a bad, bad Mommy’.” She ultimately demands “stay outta my business” and keeps her power intact.
SASSAFRASS!, the slang term for a self-assured person, announces the album’s theme before listening. Almost every track specifically deals with a myriad of issues that compromise equality. The binary forcing women to identify as either virginal or accursed is conjured in “Devil in a Dress”. The melody is echoed by a trumpet, an instrument traditionally used to symbolize dichotomy, which is fitting for the track’s subject. On “Bananas” she argues for equal pay for women when she croons, “It’s bananas she wants equal pay just for / Working all night and day.” Here she also uses double entendre to represent the association between anatomy and gender norms in a hilarious manner.
“Smoking Gun” specifically contends with the predatory and rampant sexual misconduct “neath the Hollywood sign” and the survivors who “paid up their ransom in flesh”. It’s difficult not to envision Harvey Weinstein’s repugnant face when Neilson sings “the king of the casting couch… squirming like a worm under our magnifying glass”. Hushed vocals interlaced by Joe McCallum’s percussion gives the track a menacing feel while awakening memories of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang”.
The lyrical empowerment carries over to the raucous “Kitty Cat”. Here Neilson reminds that a woman’s body is her own and men are not entitled to sex. She specifically addresses the archaic but unfortunately prevalent norm about putting out after a purchased dinner. Yet Neilson mocks entitlement when she sings, “Don’t you say no and make me pout / Kitty cat, kitty cat / Don’t be a silly brat / One little kiss ain’t going to put you out.”
Likewise, self-reliance is the focus of “Diamond Ring” as she serenades “If there’s a table for one / I’m going to take it / Don’t need the pain that lovin’ brings.” This particular track incorporates rich vocal harmonies from female backup singers evoking a Doo-wop sound. That energy is carried over to the ballad “One Thought of You”, underscored by Neil Watson’s pedal steel guitar. Both tracks reiterate the sound of a bygone era.
Neilson’s gratitude is generous as several tracks are testimonials to her predecessor’s influences. She pays tribute to Sharon Jones as the “Genuine, real deal / Girl has always kept it real” on the soul number “Miss Jones”. Dealing with her own bouts of sexism and racism, Jones’ powerhouse personality and musicality are obviously Neilson’s inspiration. The tributes continue as “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6” is written in homage to Glen Campbell while “A Woman’s Pain” illustrates Neilson’s first-nation grandmother. This track returns Neilson to country music as her acoustic guitar finds a balance between the bass and strings.
Throughout SASSAFRASS!, Neilson challenges dominant forms of oppression while calling for progressive change. Her candor contributes to the album’s mettle and strength. Neilson undoubtedly channels self-empowerment and societal change to position SASSAFRASS! as musical dynamite.