Singing about hometowns and one’s upbringing is a tale as old as time. From such standards as Johnny Cash’s rendering of “My Old Kentucky Home” (a Stephen Foster original) and Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home” to modern hits like Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” Dierks Bentley’s “Home” and Little Big Town’s “Boondocks,” roots can be well-plotted and thriving in supple, nourishing soil. But too often, roots are lodged in barren, sickly flakes of earth, ignored by their caretakers and left to survive on their own. When they do break the surface, finally, they are far more robust and sinewy. It is from that dire but paramount place Shaina Goodman approaches her band’s debut album. Whittling away pointed and cruel reflections of coming of age on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, Kudzu, the first LP as part of The Savage Radley, along with former punk drummer S. Knox Montgomery, deals heavily in atonements but never misplaces the fundamental urgency even the cherished, loving memories carry. “Oh, you left me when I wasn’t home. All of your reasons carved into the floor. Oh, what a shame,” she weeps over the gentle waltz of “Werewolf,” measured with only guitar and the clack of tambourine. Her voice is sardonic⎯as it glides shrewdly across the melody which moans in keeping time with the sparse, airy arrangement. Even when the drums and coarse piano storm into the fold, it runs cold but shimmers with warmth and light. “You brought out of me, the best,” she broods, siphoning her bleeding heart into a throbbing one.
In “Love Under Water,” which rumbles with a thunderous Alabama Shakes bound, Goodman envisions a time she was “insane,” she wields amidst a jungle of biting drums, “I’ve been a fool, and I follow your lead, honey, into the pool, where we spoke under water, so cruel.” She portions out her emotions in compartmentalized chunks for the taking, stripping away into the bewildering complexities of adolescent romance. The chunky, often blurry, layering of percussion serves to trap the listener in a bygone age, caught between youth and adulthood: nearly always muddled and disorienting. Then, the thuds fall away, and it is as if she is reaching some deep catharsis as she’s recounting it, needling together the past and the present with fervor. Goodman’s vocal prowess rattles the establishment in much the same way Brittany Howard and Kanene Pipkin of The Lone Bellow have so masterfully done. “Worm (on Hot Pavement)” sizzles with yapping electric guitar, anchored with the cutting opening line: “Oh, you had our love out like a worm on hot pavement. You stood over while there was still time to save it.” Goodman is penetrating but saucy in her presentation, lined with wisdom only time could inform. “They grew corn, sow, beans and cotton but they put you into the ground for that blood money,” she later remembers on the pounding foot stomp “Blood Money,” a shattered, Delta Blues account of share cropping, bloody hands and the exhaustive machine crushing souls for the sake of a dollar. “Her daddy farmed with his brothers, just like his daddy, too, and like them, they’d hate each other, split it up, tradition truth,” she crows, guitar bulldozing the mix into a crude but roomy composition. It’s not an easy story to tell, as Goodman’s sly vocal teases, but she is more than willing to dig her fingernails into the soiled earth herself, blood eventually painting her tips, too.
Recorded with Skylar Wilson (Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose), at Loud & Clear Studios in Paducah, Kentucky, Kudzu is mighty and the kind of dirty Americana music of which the scene is severely parched. “Little River Town” remembers her grandparents wild and foolhardy ways, a character study on how two humble, lovestruck idealists came into owning a large farming enterprise. She then pulls the story into the present, as she visits her grandmother Christine’s grave. “I said, ‘hey little lady, you’ve been gone too long. Look at your grand baby now, she’s writing songs.'” Later, she scrutinizes mortality on “Hammers” and the fleeting tone of working 9-to-5 and never living for the moment. “When the hammer comes down, will there be flames in the field surrounding our house consuming all?” she requests. “Don’t worry, Steven, you’re working for the weekend.”
For all the staggering uses of drums and strident vocal lines, there are just as many vulnerable, restrained and tightly-wounded moments. “Slough Water”⎯a gospel-edged tune of the redemptive power of those swampy waters and which draws the album title with the line “when I think of home, I think of kudzu hollows”⎯and the silky “Milk and Honey” enrich Goodman’s impact. Each tale weaves together into a hearty and weathered storybook, one which she flips through quite frequently in her search to remain connected to her past and reaching a sharp understanding of her future. “[The album] tells the story of a modern-day South. A good songwriter⎯or any good writer for that matter⎯writes about what they know. These songs follow that tradition of storytelling. It’s about personal experiences coming of age in a modern rural landscape. The land itself has its own story to tell. If you listen to it, you can hear it. It’s in the dirt and on the river, coming from the forgotten farmlands and small town college parties. It’s a sound that could eat the South,” Montgomery said.
“We’re not dead. We’re still learning.” Goodman remains insightful and exposed to the very last syllable, leaving the listener lost in their own meditations of life, regret, hardship and perseverance.
Grade: 4 out of 5
Photo credit: Glenn Hall