- May 25, 2021
- Kim Ruehl
- Album Reviews
by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley
Much has been written already about Allison Russell’s debut solo album, Outside Child, which released on May 21 via Fantasy Records. The artist known for her work in Our Native Daughters, Birds of Chicago, and Po’ Boy has always been a standout performer with a shapeshifting vocal talent. For fans who have been paying close attention, it’s not particularly surprising that she had an album as stunning as Outside Child in her.
Nonetheless, it is a revelation—not just of a horrible past that may seem familiar to an unfortunate number of women, but also of what’s possible in a musical journey. After all, the disc defies genre categories in a way that might have seemed confusing 20 years ago, before genre became so blurred through streaming and other modern deliveries.
Her truth-telling lyricism is courageous and poetic throughout, but we should also celebrate her impressive command of any musical style she touches.
At the onset, she is a jazz singer, crooning in French to her beloved home of Montréal. Soon enough, she’s a country singer ruminating on the woman who saved her. Then she’s a rock and roller, singing about running away from home.
“Hy-Brasil” adheres beautifully to folk tradition, with its marching rhythm and murder ballad-reminiscent melodic and narrative structure. But there’s also an emotionalism that’s usually missing in that tradition, which Russell blows wide open. By the time she gets to “I’m freer than the sky,” you really want that for her. The clarinet solo that beckons you through the fog—that’s also Russell’s voice, just filtered through a reed.
Then “The Hunters,” wherein Russell’s voice tours its entire terrain, from airiness at the beginning to her powerful vibrato. Its strength and clarity, its shadowy corners. After “It is of you, I am afraid,” she sings her way to the power and clarity of “You had your chance / Now it’s too late.”
Then comes the gift of “All the Women,” where Russell snarls and sneers, whispers and wails. The lyrics are exquisite, but the delivery is the thing. The song is one long crescendo, beginning with a low clawhammer banjo and the depths of her vocals—a dark and lonesome music. By the end, she’s got a chorus behind her, transforming what feels so isolated and personal into the reality of a thing that happens to so many. There’s gospel here, a hymn of transcendence. She’s not yelling, but she is singing the hell out of the song.
And then the clarinet comes in. The way she plays is a reminder that both clarinet and voice are wind instruments, borne of breath and muscular control. When there are no words to say, the clarinet comes in. When she cannot hold her tongue anymore, her voice comes through. It is the same thing as when she slips into French for a line or two before jumping back to the English language. These are all ways to say what needs saying, and Russell uses what she needs to use, with great artistry and timing. It’s all a master class in honest, mindful musicality.
For those who have been following along, it seems as though all her artistic endeavors have been pointing toward this one. With any luck there will be more to come. “I’m the one who can’t be counted out,” she sings in “Nightflyer.” That is, quite obviously, the truth.
Outside Child is available HERE.