Having abandoned Muscle Shoals for New York on her last album, Born On The Ground – released on the eve of the pandemic – Emily Duff really didn’t have much choice regarding the recording location of her latest album, Razor Blade Smile. In fact, the album was birthed in her cramped Greenwich Village tenement (shared with husband, teenage kids, a dog and a few dozen guitars!) as Duff took time out on the fire escape and wrote these songs.
As has often been the case recently, Duff’s fire escape songs found their way into the studio once Covid restrictions relaxed as she and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel recorded her acoustic versions. The basic tracks laid down, Ambel then assembled a band and grafted them onto Duff’s originals with nary a join to be seen or heard. The result is a kickass set of songs with a New York attitude which at times has a Patti Smith toughness along with nods to alt country and some of that southern grit displayed on her earlier albums.
It’s the south which is summoned first of all as the gutsy finger picked guitar intro to Go Fast Don’t Die is rapidly joined by a kaleidoscopic Band -like country funk while Duff comes across like a foul mouthed Bobbie Gentry. It’s only two minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. Next up is the more conventional and fleet footed Gimme Back My Love which reminds this writer of Bruce Springsteen, but then the album gets down and dirty on the slow groove of Done And Done with Ambel’s guitars rumbling and growling alongside Charlie Giordano’s swelling keyboards. Duff’s in her element here, her strong voice weighted with portent like an iron fist in a velvet glove and she revisits this on the melodramatic Don’t Hang The Moon which dives deep into a witchy woman vision of dark country rock music. The title song is a scuzzy slice of punk rock and Another Goodbye recalls the high priestess of punk, Patti Smith. Duff here sounds more guarded and, indeed, paranoid, as the band slide between punk reggae and New York organ grooves.
Sidling closer to country towards the end of the disc, we find Giordano abandoning his keyboards for accordion on Feelin’ Alright which is given a fine country lope while Nicotine & Waiting is quite tremendous. It’s a tear stained slow country waltz with weeping pedal steel and accordion, burnished by Ambel’s guitar glimmerings. Duff here shows why some folk compare her to the like of Lucinda Williams.
Having ploughed a soulful Southern loam on her last two records (Maybe In The Morning and Hallelujah Hello), both recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Emily Duff here returns to her New York roots for a zesty collection of punchy songs. There’s still a soulful edge here and there but there’s a New York groove throughout with nods to Duff’s apprenticeship at CBGB and the Big Apple tradition of feisty female pop and rock. Adding a powerful booster rocket to her trajectory, she has enlisted Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for production duties and electric guitar. A sure-footed step as Ambel is as close to a trademark of quality as one can get these days.
According to Duff, the nine songs here are all related to some sort of breakup (or more accurately perhaps, breakdown) she has experienced, seen through the prism of a current happy family life, allowing her time to reflect on her past. There’s little rancour here (aside from We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Knuckle Sandwich) but plenty of emotion as Duff recalls busted relationships and her absent mother.
The album kicks off with a swamp rock outing similar to those on her previous albums as she wails against the sorry “sonofabitch” she is kicking off her metaphorical train on We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. He’s well advised jump as she returns later with the blistering Knuckle Sandwich which hammers along with killer guitars and electrifying honky tonk piano as Duff turns the table on a bully as she snarls like Patti Smith.
Elsewhere the dial is turned down on a series of well crafted songs which range from the stoical tale of hardship which is Born On The Ground (with more killer guitar soloing) to the theatrical antics of No Escape which is perfectly executed with carnival organ, Mike Garson like tinkling ivories and lyrical guitar licks. There’s a glimmer of power pop on Easy Go! while There Is A Way Out has a New Jersey feel to it preparing the listener for Something Sexy’s strut into Asbury Park territory. The tender Killer allows Duff to show off her excellent vocals over a shuffled beat with electric piano setting the pace as she sings about a lover leaving her. A gliding guitar solo and Duff’s wearied voice here reminds one of Lucinda Williams’ best work. A mighty burst of guitars introduces the final song, Forever Love, another fine foray into power pop which sways with an “up yours” Chrissie Hind like sashay.
With Ambel at the helm and her band ( Scott Aldrich: guitar, Skip Ward: bass, Charlie Giordano: keyboards, Kenny Soule: drums) on fire throughout, Born On The Ground shows that Duff can easily transfer her talents from the south to her native territory without sacrificing any of the emotion while broadening her palette.
Following on from her successful foray into southern music on Maybe In The Morning, New York’s Emily Duff returns to the famed Fame studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama for another bite at the apple. In comparison to its predecessor, the album has more of a soulful gospel groove although that southern grit still hits hard. We had mentioned the likes of Bonnie Bramlett in our review of Maybe In The Morning and that comparison still stands while a host of singers, characterised as “southern soul belles” on one disc in our collection also come to mind. Names such as Betty Lavette, Irma Thomas, Etta James and Doris Allen, women who really were the equals of Redding and Pickett but who were sidelined at the time. Anyhow, that’s the pool that Duff is diving into and she comes back to the surface with some pearls.
The album gets off to a roaring start with the blistering southern rock of the title song which is scythed by its slide guitars while the chorus, with Duff supported by three singers, is rousing. It’s the type of song one wished Dylan might have recorded if he had ever stumbled upon the Allmans’ back in his Christian days. Next up is the biblical jaunt of Get In The Water which is just superb in the manner of The Staple Singers and it’s The Staples who are recalled again on The Day He Walked which is funky as hell (if you are allowed to say that in regard to a somewhat spiritual song). The spiritual bent is pursued on You Better Believe which is a foray into deep southern soul territory with a billowing horn section and female chorus rising above a rock steady Muscle Shoals rhythm beat with Duff really letting loose on the vocals. Trust The Lord follows a similar path but it’s more restrained, not so much southern swamp as southern church but Duff releases the dogs on the rollicking boogie of We All Need Saving Sometime, using some non biblical language here and there.
There are some contemplative moments. Jesus Loved This Tired Woman is set in a similar fashion to Kris Kristofferson’s early songs with its sly Dobro backing while Heaven Is Where I’m Bound comes across like a modern day Carter Family. Our favourite song here however finds Duff delving into Bobbie Gentry territory on the superb Eggs All Day. Here she captures the languid small town mind set one imagines of the south which is delivered with a sublime country backing, pedal steel smiling away.
Country soul has been a genre percolating through several recent reviews here on Blabber’n’Smoke with My Darling Clementine,Danny & The Champions Of The World and Emily Barker all referencing the classic sounds that emanated from Alabama back in the late sixties and early seventies. The arrival of Emily Duff’s second album then was somewhat timely as this New Yorker actually went to the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals to record this soulful slab of wax. Duff is a new name to Blabber’n’Smoke but she’s got a fine pedigree along with a winning way of promoting herself. Her bio commences, “Emily was born in Flushing Queens and raised by a pack of cigarettes. Her Mama taught her 4 perfect chords and then ran off leaving Emily to figure out the rest on her own…armed with a hollow body electric guitar and enough anger to level a small country Emily carved a path straight to CBGBs and never looked back.” Who could resist such an introduction?
First coming to attention as part of Gary Lucas’ God & Monsters (replacing Jeff Buckley as his star briefly ascended) Duff eventually moved towards roots music with her trio Eudora before settling down with her own Emily Duff Band after taking time out for her family. Maybe In The Morning follows on from her 2015 album Go Tell Your Friends which had reviewers comparing her to Lucinda Williams and while one can see that in the new album, Duff delves much deeper into her early heroes such as Bobbie Gentry and The Staple Singers while the ghosts of The Allmans and Delaney & Bonnie are never too far away. Recorded with her regular band and a wealth of Muscle Shoals musicians including original “swamper” Clayton Ivey on keyboards, the album is chockfull of touchstones; Gospel harmonies, churchlike organ and liquid guitar solos that coalesce into the quintessential southern soul groove. Duff then takes this sound and adds her own vision which at one point is decidedly a New York state of mind as she sings on the title song about addiction as the band pulverise like The MG’s on speed.
She lays her wares on the table with the swampy and sultry Hypmotizing Chickenz which opens the album. A syncopated southern brew with a Meters like percussive precision, Gospel chorus and mighty slide guitar solo it’s as gritty as, well, grits. Please Don’t Do Me Dirty is somewhat breezier, the guitars gliding with the grit provided here by Duff’s throaty voice as she sings about the sexual undertones hidden by southern manners almost as if it were written by Tennessee Williams. Bomp Bomp bounces along like a pop confection from Bobbie Gentry with a hook made for radio play while one could imagine Everytime I Go To Harlem being a staple of Elvis’ Vegas shows as the band rock out with a sanctified middle eight. Alabama is a fast paced country rocker which sounds more west coast derived with the pedal steel gleaning away as Duff recalls a childhood visit to the State but there’s an immediate return to the swampy south on the glorious slow drift of Diamonds which has Duff’s fine vocals duetting with a male counterpart who sounds for all the world like Bobby Whitlock wailing away on the Layla album.
There’s so much to enjoy here with Needledrop Blues a witty dissertation on the current vinyl fascination delivered with some honky tonk vigour while Don’t is a ballad that builds on foundations laid down by the likes of Etta James back in the days. Daddy’s Drunk Again is a taut slide driven boogie with shades of Tony Joe White and Listen To Mama is a fine holy mess of cluttered rhythm section and muddy slide guitars colliding into each other as Duff stands tall and gutsy inhaling the spirit of Flannery O’Connor. The closing song, Somebody On Sunday, gathers all the antecedents together on a slinky southern groove that is so affecting one can almost smell the wisteria.
Sure, Maybe In The Morning is infused with that special moment in time that saw gems scattered daily from a bunch of talented Southerners, but to her credit Ms. Duff has created a vibrant and engaging album that doesn’t just rely on nostalgia. If there’s a new wave of country soul about to land then she should in the vanguard. You can buy the album here and there’s also a great interview here where she talks about her experience of recording in Muscle Shoals. As we said earlier she has a way with words so do catch her colourful descriptions of her time there.