Allison Russell: The Returner [Album Review]

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Allison Russell
The Returner
Fantasy Records [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

In an unusual turn of events, the first two times I saw Allison Russell perform live I was a complete blank slate, I’d not heard any of her recordings or the work of her numerous musical collaborations beforehand. The first time was over Memorial Day weekend in 2017 at the Nowhere Else Festival on a farm in the country between Cincinnati and Dayton on a lovely Ohio weekend. I’d made the effort to get to there to attend a tribute to singer/songwriter Mark Heard, the Red Dirt Boys and Phil Madeira, an old friend, and of course the Fest’s host band, Over The Rhine with their Band of Sweethearts. I heard a lot of great music that weekend, but the real surprise was Birds of Chicago, featuring the soulful and energetic, charismatic singer Allison Russell. With her great voice and warm smiling persona, she led her husband and the band through a set that rocked with soulful sounds that tapped the best of R&B and Gospel musical traditions while mixing folk and rock, occasionally playing some banjo and clarinet, two instruments that added a surprising and unique tone to the proceedings. The band was great, talented all around, but Russell’s generous performance and strong singing voice suggested she was going places.

After COVID, I returned to the Nowhere Else Fest in 2021, this time moved to Labor Day weekend, and again I was more focused on seeing artists like Joe Henry, Mary Gauthier, Patty Griffin, and of course OtR. So, I was entirely caught of guard when Allison Russell took the stage for an afternoon set to play songs from her recently released debut solo album, Outside Child. Backed only by a an acoustic guitarist and two female cello players who in addition to the resonant melodies added a syncopated flair and backing vocals, Russell performed the deeply confessional songs, telling the emotional story of her abusive childhood in Canada, and her journey to reclaim her life and create an artful response to the world’s pain and sorrows in what can only be described as “survivor’s joy.” It was profoundly emotional, and very moving, as well as musically exhilarating. I held the memories of that set in mind, when I got home and tracked down a copy of her album, which embodied all the anguish and beauty of her live performance, the disc’s artful production bringing clarity to the rich diversity of musical influences that she had incorporated, from folk, country and bluegrass to blues, rock & soul in a way that felt natural and almost effortless, organic.

Of course, the album was very well received, the debut of an artist who had already spent the better part of two decades making music with her band Birds of Chicago and before that her band, Po’ Girl. In 2018, Russell joined up with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla to record “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” an album honoring women of color who played the banjo, celebrating indigenous folk traditions. And once her debut won Russell numerous musical awards and accolades, including Album of the Year at the Americana Awards, it came out that it was Brandi Carlile who had championed the album, helping Russell find a major label and distribution for her heartfelt, personal memoir of a record. That relationship led to the opportunity to play clarinet at the Joni Mitchell tribute hosted by Carlile at the Newport Folk festival, earning the description as Mitchell’s “favorite reed player,” and “the most beautiful clarinet player ever.” As a celebration of her musical hero, Russell had written a poem describing Joni Mitchell as “the returner,” and now she uses that description to title her new sophomore solo outing.

Having chronicled her early life on Outside Child, with somewhat graphic stories of her abuse and the life shaping struggles that defined her childhood and early years, she chose to end the album with “Joyful Motherfuckers,” a militant protest against those who might try to tie her to the brokenness of her past, not recognizing her love of life and music as an expression of what she calls “survivors joy.” And it’s that spirit of joy that dominates on The Returner, an album that clearly finds Russell in the driver’s seat of her career and musical direction. While still supported by her husband and Birds alums, JT Nero and his brother Drew Lindsey, who co-produce with her, Russell has pulled together an all-female band she calls the Rainbow Coalition, which features her SistaStrings collaborators, Monique (cello) and Chauntee Ross (violin), as well as Larissa Maestro and Kerenza Peacock, on additional cello and violin respectively. Her funky rhythm section is made up of drummers Megan Coleman and Wiktoria Bialic, Ganessa James on bass, with percussion by Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and others; Elenna Canlas is on keys, Joy Clark and Mandy Fer on guitars, while Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, from Prince’s Revolution, are also in the mix, and Brandy Carlile, Brandy Clark, and Hosier all show up to and to the chorus of “Requiem.”

As such, The Returner takes a bold step away from the acoustic contours and intimacy of her debut, embracing the larger, funkier aspect of Russell’s musical influences. In the bold rhythmic punch of the drum led “All Without Within,” she claims her physical recovery, a survivor’s acknowledgement that “I’m back inside my body,” and here and throughout this album’s 10 tracks, Russell’s body wants to dance. As the album’s title suggests, she’s ready to say “Goodbye, so long, farewell, all I’ve been” to her past, and look forward “like a love supreme/like a circle unbroken,” a not so subtle shout out to John Coltrane and the folk/rock tradition defined by The Band and so many others. Having come through all that life threw at her, Russell wants to be there for others who are living a similar plight: “I’m a summer dream, I’m a real light beam, I’m worthy/Of all the goodness and the love that the world is going to give to me/I’ma give it back ten times, people are you ready?”

Which doesn’t mean she isn’t still dealing with her share of “Demons,” and the messages that as a woman of color she’s got “the bad hair and the bad skin,” but now she’s made it to a place where she can put those negative voices on a bus and “turn them into Freedom Riders.” As she sings in the opening track, she may be all to aware of the “winter of my discontent,” but she’s leaning into the “Springtime of my present tense.” As such, she’s ready to call a spade a spade, declaring that “Eve Was Black,” wondering “is that why you hate my black skin so?” Picking her banjo over the lush strings, Russell takes on all the stereotypes white supremacists have attached to people of color, while dissecting the psychology of that hateful pathology she names the American original sin even as she senses the longing to return “back to the innocence/back to the shine you lost/when you enslaved your kin.” Rarely do you find such significant analysis wrapped in such a pleasing musical setting.

Russell still plays her banjo and adds clarinet in the most unique and musically satisfying ways, but the overall impression of songs like “Stay Right Here” is those big disco strings that fueled the dancefloor frenzies of the 70’s when artists like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled. Still, in the brooding “Snake Life,” Russell taps the metaphor of shedding one’s skin to become something new and vibrant against the odds. With a survivor’s determination to move on, she sings “what did not kill me fills me with the power of a thousand suns,” as she works to “weave a world where every child is safe and loved… and Black is beautiful and good.” An affirmation and celebration that is given further voice in the closing hymn-like “Requiem,” where the choir sings in both English and French of the possibility of healing and wholeness. “Go on my child” she sings to a hurting world, “Hope is a prairie fire/Set your embers on the summer wind.” Here, Allison Russell returns, eager to build up and encourage, to nurture a hope that will not disappoint, and musically she does just that.

“The Returner” / “All Without Within” / “Eve Was Black”

Amythyst Kiah / Brandi Carlile / Yola

Outside Child (2021)

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