While it’s Nashville and The South that most people turn to when thinking of Americana music, it’s instructive to dig into the recent archives and to consider how much great music has been coming out of Portland, Oregon, these last few years. Nina Yates is the latest to arrive on record and while her debut album has been a long time coming, it’s a balm for the musical soul.
The seeds of the album were sowed when Yates attended a weekly Open Mic song challenge, hosted by Taylor Kingman, leader of TK & The Holy Know Nothings, at the legendary Laurelthirst Tavern. Mike Coykendall, a local musician had offered to record some the participant’s songs and these sessions went so well that Yates asked him, “Hey, how about we make a whole album? Are you willing?” Fortunately, he was, and so here we have this ten song album which is by turns beguiling and bewitching.
It’s a low-key affair with Coykendall adding guitar, keys and percussion to Yates’ plaintive vocals and delicate acoustic guitar, while another local, Paul Brainard, adds pedal steel on one song. The end result is an album which will surely delight fans of Joni Mitchell, and, from a more contemporary angle, Courtney Marie Andrews. Too True, the beneficiary of Brainard’s steel playing, is a wonderfully delicate but steely dismissal of a former lover delivered in a hypnotic swoon and very reminiscent of Andrews’ recent “break up” album.
Yates opens up emotionally straight from the beginning with the excellent title song which is a bittersweet message of love from a mother to her daughter as she describes the father as a man who “slashed and burned my life apart, so I could be reborn with a mama’s heart.” Amid the song’s gentle folk melody Yates gently rails against the male sex and affirms the bond between mother and child. She certainly has a way with simple yet memorable melodies and refrains. Witness Fear No More, a pitch perfect portrait of a young woman suffused with ennui which is perfectly embroidered with gilded guitar stylings while Jolene’s Lament finds Yates inhabiting Dolly Parton’s nemesis and offering her apologies.
Halfway through the album, Yates delivers a song which is quite astounding. Just A Girl is, on the face of it, a bootlegger’s song about a hidden whiskey still, but this moonshiner is a girl whose boyfriend has been targeted instead for the crime. Here Yates rides roughshod into Bobbie Gentry territory on a song which is soaked in Southern gothic with snakelike guitars and glowering percussion. It’s worth the price of entry all on its own. Also reminiscent of Gentry is the patina vignette of Player Piano with its tinkling piano and atmospheric synth grumbles emphasising the sense of loss of the protagonist.
Cheerfully enough, Yates closes the album with a song called Death. It’s the obverse of the opening song, this time the mother saying farewell to her child. Cleaving closely to the likes of The Child Ballads, Yates here turns in a modern folk classic as she challenges the grim reaper and the band deliver a suitably sombre and spooky folk backdrop.
For an album birthed from an informal open mic setting, Mama’s Heart is quite astounding with Yates proving to be an immensely gifted songwriter while her voice and performance are both to be noted. Have a listen and spread the word.