The Duel (Sugar Hill)
Playing 9 p.m. April 13 at 12th & Porter and 5:30 p.m. the same day at Tower Records, West End
Allison Moorer opens her new album, The Duel, with a lie: "I always toss it in when things get heavy." With her sultry, drawling alto, she pronounces each word with the clarity and weight that a practiced stage actor might, and it's certainly an attention-getter. But she's setting us up, for few modern musical artists tackle heavy subject matter more willingly or more frequently than Moorer does. Many of her new songs speak to issues of patriotism and religion, typically using allegory or a person's story to explore some human frailty or cultural or political quandary.
Moorer and producer R.S. Field make sure that the musical arrangements reflect this hefty tone. Instead of her usual mix of country and rock studio veterans, Moorer's stripped-down band centers on two young guitarists, Adam Landry and John Davis, who provide a raw backdrop that doesn't rock so much as slice with a spare edge. Field plays the drums, an instrument he'd set aside years ago, and his accompaniment is taut and fractured. With none of the softening of the acoustic instruments Moorer has used in the past, the album's dark, stripped-down sound threatens violence, but never explodes. It's all sinewy tension, muscle and nerve without the release.
Moorer has altered her vocal sound, too. She has an amazing voice, one that's fully rounded and always in the center of a note, and she has a husky tone more akin to jazz singers than to modern pop or country stars. Despite these strengths, she doesn't rely on the showy flights that have become such a cliché in popular music, but rather prefers subtlety, a mix of restrained heat and heartbreak. That heat boils more than ever on The Duel, but it's more angry than desirous, and the pain sounds more indignant than hurt. Like someone who's pissed off but trying to stay in control, Moorer maintains an even but impassioned tone throughout, rarely raising her voice or showing off her range.
That said, people who hear The Duel won't be talking about Moorer's voice or the arrangements; they're going to be talking about the lyrics. The opening track, "I Ain't Giving Up on You," might be addressing her audience, her muse or a lover. Moorer recently shifted from major-label Nashvillewhich embraced her talent but never found a way to market or expose itto Sugar Hill Records, a leading independent. Here, she seems eager to flex that independence, and she starts by assuring people that, more than ever, she's singing for those who prefer music that has higher artistic goals than fitting a format or feeding the celebrity machine.
It's on four consecutive songs in the center of the album that Moorer takes aim at the creative timidity that runs rampant in contemporary commercial music. "Believe You Me" depicts a series of individuals who pour themselves into dreams that fail them, while "One on the House" details a rakish drunk whose yin-yang of eloquent charm and pathetic pleading is reminiscent of a character from a play by Eugene O'Neill.
With its slightly militaristic beat, "All Aboard" digs into the danger of a particular brand of patriotism that's resurfaced in America. "Sign up and get a flag / Wear it proudly, you can brag / To the fools who didn't volunteer," Moorer seethes. "Some restrictions do apply / Watch your mouth and close your eyes / And we allow no yellow foreign queers."
Moorer is taking on those who would say that our nation and its leaders can do no wrong, and that they should be supported without question, even if it means giving up the freedoms and sense of justice that the U.S. supposedly is going to war to protect. By time she addresses "the old white studs pulling this country club," she could be talking about the corporate executives ruling pop culture as much as she is about our politiciansor anyone who values conformity over dialogue and dissent.
The title track takes on a similarly heady topic. Backed only by Steve Conn's gospel piano chords and some accents of harmonica (presumably by Moorer's co-writer and husband, Butch Primm), the song starts with a woman standing on a fresh grave, forsaking her faith. "In this cemetery mist / Stands a newborn atheist," she begins, "Even if you do exist / You're far from almighty."
Moorer then recounts previous acts of faithfulness in vivid verse, rhyming "my polished shoes" with "your wooden pews" and speaking of how she prayed and prayed for her loved one to be healed. She's letting us in on the woman's conversation with a God that she, in her pain and anger, no longer believes in.
It's hard to call The Duel a career moment, for Moorer's work has been consistently strong throughout her six short years of recording, but it's another high watermark, certainly as good in its way as 2000's remarkable The Hardest Part. Musically and lyrically, she's clearly feeling free to follow whatever direction she feels like taking.
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