Saturday, March 26, 2016

Aubrie Sellers - New City Blues

You'd best learn the name Aubrie Sellers now, because you're probably going to be hearing it a lot soon. Sellers drops her debut album, entitled New City Blues, today, but she's already had a lot of hype and momentum behind her for months. Last November, Rolling Stone named her an "artist you need to know," and even the normally trend-averse Saving Country Music listed her debut among their most anticipated albums of the year. There is, perhaps, an air of nepotism in the promotion for New City Blues. After all, Sellers was indoctrinated into Nashville's inner circle from birth. Her mother is country singer Lee Ann Womack (of "I Hope You Dance Fame"), while her dad, Jason Sellers, has written songs for Lonestar, Kenney Chesney, Reba McEntire, and Rascal Flatts, to name a few. Add the fact that Aubrie's stepdad is Frank Liddell—the go-to producer for acts like Miranda Lambert and Eli Young Band, and the man behind the boards for New City Blues—and this girl having a country music career was about as close to a sure thing as you could get.

What's refreshing about Aubrie Sellers, though, is that she doesn't sound like someone who spent her entire youth hearing country music on the radio and being whisked from one studio to the next for her parents' recording sessions. While there are absolutely traces of authentic Nashville country on New City Blues, Sellers delivers the majority of the record like someone who just rolled into town for the first time last month. In other words, she's not content to chase trends or imitate anyone—even though she probably could have become a radio darling in the space of three weeks if she had gone into the studio with Liddell and made something that sounded like the last Miranda Lambert record. Rather, she brings an unpredictable edge to these songs, and the result is one of the most confident and fully realized debuts I've heard in a decade.

Bravely, for an artist who is bound to get the bulk of her recognition from country music listeners, Sellers scatters most of the outright country songs toward the back half of New City Blues. Her most traditional moment, the radiant "Like the Rain," is also probably the record's best song, but it's pointedly placed in the penultimate slot, where its wistful, dusky mood can have the most striking impact. First single "Loveless Rolling Stone" is also pushed back to the album's second half, as are lovely ballads like "Humming Song" and "Something Special." The message is clear: Sellers wants you to know that she can deliver flowing choruses and plaintive lyrics about love gone wrong as well as anyone in Nashville right now. But she also wants you to know that she doesn't need to lean on those types of songs to deliver a killer country music debut.

Instead, the bread and butter of New City Blues is loud, bustling rock 'n' roll. Sellers calls her debut "garage country," and that's about as apt a descriptor as any. Suffice to say that, if I didn't know Liddell had produced the album, I might have checked for Jack White's name somewhere in the liner notes. The album opens with an extended, patient intro of clanging guitar chords, before settling into the swampy mid-tempo groove of "Light of Day." Sellers then proceeds to pound out two more unapologetic guitar-driven numbers (the fast-paced, harmonica-assisted blues of "Sit Here and Cry" and the sultry, angry surge of "Paper Doll") before she even starts thinking about slowing things down. These songs are foot-tapping, head-bobbing rockers, singed with buzzsaw guitar riffs and pounding drums that don't even resemble Nashville. Hell, the album's first overt country song—track four, a Kacey Musgraves-style mid-tempo ballad called "Losing Ground"—sounds like it could have come from an entirely different artist than whoever recorded those first three songs.

As New City Blues settles in, it becomes clear that Sellers clustered her most blistering rock tracks at the front of the album to prove a point. The rest of the record splits the difference between her Musgraves-y singer/songwriter side and her garage band frontwoman side. Sure, there's hardly an acoustic guitar anywhere in sight—let alone a banjo or a fiddle—but there's still a definite twang to songs like "Dreaming in the Day" that keeps the record from drifting too far from the country music that is in Sellers' DNA. Mid-album standout "Liar, Liar" even has Brandy Clark—one of country music's most respected songwriters, and a talented solo artist in her own right—providing a co-write. The broody bar jam tackles Clark's personal favorite subjects—infidelity and demonic men—but is clearly an Aubrie Sellers song. Featuring a creepily foreboding atmosphere and a commanding vocal performance ("Liar, liar, womanizer/Bargain bin romanticizer/Spin your web just like a spider does," goes the album's best line), "Liar, Liar" is a star-maker of a song.

At 14 tracks, an argument could be made that New City Blues sticks around for just a hair too long. But for an artist this talented, who so clearly has multiple different sides of her songcraft to showcase, the extra bloat is justified. With sharp songwriting, stellar full band work, lush and loud production, and a bit more variety than the average country record, New City Blues is the first truly great album of 2016. Add Aubrie's lovely singing—which can in turns be sweet, scathing, wry, or poignant, depending on the mood of the song—and you've got the recipe for one hell of a career.

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