ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Roots music that stays cool while it captures a kettle full of Southern heat.
What makes a record cool as opposed to good or great? I half remember a favourite Melody Maker review of Dummy by Portishead where the reviewer said when they listened to this record on their Walkman, they walked like a panther. Maybe it’s a sense of double-edged danger, maybe it’s an uncanny feeling that makes a record cool. Whatever it is, A Southern Gothic by Adia Victoria is a cool record. It is a cool dispensing record. Listening to it in even the least promising of situations, say perhaps streaming it while involved in middle-aged, sweat-drenched, huffing around a run on week 3 of couch to 5k, this record makes you believe your own rhythm, it sharpens your edge. It takes you out way out to the deep water.
From the first bars of guitar and long drags on a violin of ‘Magnolia Blues’, up there with ‘Robber’ by The Weather Station and ‘Chaise Longue’ by Wet Leg as one of 2021’s most insistent earworms, Adia Victoria lights a numinous bonfire. She draws you in, but don’t get too close. Come home to Carolina, but don’t necessarily expect a welcome.
In a series of stories and character vignettes, A Southern Gothic is a tour of traditional themes relating to the South. There are heartless men turning out their women on Christmas Day. There is a Preacher’s daughter turned bad. Times are hard in Nashville. On ‘Troubled Mind’, there’s a woman on the edge clinging to hope with every prayer. But constantly, there’s also a theme of returning. Conflicted, knowing all the disasters that can occur, it’s still warmer in the Carolinas.
Ironically, for a cool record, the playing captures a kettle full of Southern heat. ‘Let that dirt do its work’ acts as a manifesto. The blues on this record are sticky and swampy, the guitars are suitably scuzzy. T Bone Burnett is the executive producer and his influence on the record is clear. There’s also an impressive cast of supporting artists. Jason Isbell’s guitar solo on ‘You Was Born To Die’ is a particularly high point on the album.
This is Adia Victoria’s album though and her presence is the authentic selling point. Her vocal performance has enough grit and gasoline to suit the traditional roots settings of this album and she has ample range to rage or be tender. In some ways, it is possible to imagine a meeting between Adia Victoria and PJ Harvey, one cutting across the other where blues and rock meet. The character work in the songs mean that there is a latent theatricality to A Southern Gothic. You can’t be sure with these songs. They look familiar and then twist into new shapes. Adia Victoria strength is that she is always more than one thing at once. Maybe that’s at the heart of what makes A Southern Gothic very cool.