There was a time a few years back when Gina Villalobos was the next big thing in Americana. A regular visitor to Glasgow, her songs were played on the righteous radio shows and live she was a powerful performer. As is the way of the world things moved on and it was only when this album popped up that we realised it had been some time since Ms. Villalobos had come to our attention. Five years in fact as she appears to have had an extended sabbatical, reasons unknown, although the publicity for Sola states that “exhausted and creatively empty” she took a break from making music and enrolled in a music course of some sorts at Los Angeles City College. Now, reinvigorated, she lays this seven song mini album before us and it’s gratifying to say that the rest (or recuperation) has done its work as Sola is a gripping and visceral piece of work with Villalobos’ gritty vocals and soulful writing as good as ever while her band (with Eric Heywood on pedal steel well to the fore) delve deep.
There’s a grittiness in Sola that removes it somewhat from her previous releases, almost as if there’s a cathartic element to the album. A dedication to Michelle Falvey, a psychotherapist who passed away last year might be an indication as to where Villalobos is coming from but there’s no doubting the sense of hurt that oozes from the songs here. Sola is naked in the way that Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night Was, an exorcism of sorts but portrayed with a passion that rivets the listener.
The opener, Everything I Want, is a dark howl with rumbling guitars occasionally sweetened by pedal steel as Villalobos rails against a perfect world and growls with an existential angst, searching for a square to put into a wheel and other impossible goals. Taillights glowers and swells as the acoustic intro is gradually enveloped by a huge band sound, churning and roiling guitars threaten to drown out the desperate vocal on what is a bravura performance. Come Undone lowers the temperature somewhat as Villalobos launches into what appears to be a simple country lament but as the song progresses Josh Grange’s guitar looms as large as a thunder cloud, low and reverberating, undermining any sunshine here. This muscular guitar sound dominates the astonishing Hold On To Rockets, a song that might be a nostalgic nod to better days or a grim warning against present perils. Whatever, the song is a mighty clusterfuck of guitars bass and drums with Villalobos crowing victory over it all. Tears Gone By is tender and aching and again the band are thrilling with some excellent interplay between gut strings and pedal steel.
With seven songs and around 30 minutes playing time Sola might be considered a stop gap but there’s no denying that it’s packed with soul and emotion and some really excellent playing. Here’s hoping that it’s the first of a phoenix like revival for Ms. Villalobos.