Australian-born singer Emily Barker comes up sounding pure Southern-soul American on her stunning new album, Sweet Kind Of Blue. This album marks a new sound, as she returns to the soul and blues influences that first inspired her to become a singer/songwriter. I’ve taken this album to heart as it was recorded in my favorite city; done in June 2016, at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. That particular building holds the legacy of recording artists like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Booker T. and Alex Chilton. The stunning set is also her first full studio set since Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo’s Dear River in 2013 (this is her 6th album, overall).
As the story goes, the stars were in perfect alignment for these Memphis sessions; Ms. Barker brought her songs, her guitar, that remarkable voice and her irrepressible freewheeling spirit. Producer Matt Ross-Spang was riding high following his recent Grammy success with Jason Isbell and Ms. Barker was backed by top Memphis musicians Rick Steff (yes!), Dave Smith, Dave Cousar and Steve Potts, who have performed wiith John Mayall, Cat Power and Norah Jones, amongst many others. Ms. Barker reported on the synergy they created: “In this short amount of time (4 days of tracking), myself and the musicians became very close. It’s a magical thing to experience; the rapid transition from strangers to life-long friends – it doesn’t always happen”. The result is an intoxicating blend of songs she penned about loves lost, heartrending humanity, the rush of a road trip and the sheer glory of new love. The making of the album was a love story in itself – between Barker and Memphis – and this is a story I know from experience.
Kicking in with the groove of the title track, Ms. Barker’s smooth and natural vocals just grip you as does the music – the warmth of the Hammond B3, the silky guitars and the tight rhythm section – plus the backing vocals – gives this a straight up modern but discernible Memphis feel. “Sunrise” is both soulful and gospel-tinged but joyful – you can almost imagine the track being recorded with an easy vibe – a good time session with everyone playing together in one room and Ms. Barker giving her all in one take; “No. 5 Hurricane” is a sweet, quieter moment – opening with acoustic guitar and that voice, building slowly with a full ensemble and a warm sadness – simply lovely and touching and “Change” is also a slower tempo, but is perfect, Southern-style pop. “More!” is the ’60’s-oriented soul-pop stomper, with horn punches, backing vocals and a complete throwback (ironically) to Motown; “Underneath The Honey Moon” closes out the set in languid, dreamy fashion, going for drama (but not cloyingly) with strings and the most on-the-one reverbed twanging guitar solo I’ve heard in a while.
Yes, this is a Memphis album. And it’s obvious that Emily Barker knows, feels, loves and understands Memphis; what the power of recording in that city can do – for the song and the emotions that go into those songs. And when you listen all the way through these tracks, you immediately know why it is “a sweet kind of blue” – because it is. Very sweet.
Sweet Kind Of Blue is currently available