Sandy Carroll – Blues & Angels
Catfood Records 2018
11 songs; 47 minutes
Hailing originally from McNairy County in West Tennessee (home of sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame), singer-songwriter-pianist Sandy Carroll and her Grammy-winning producer husband Jim Gaines, now make their home and studio some two hours east of Memphis, TN.
Carroll spent the early part of her career singing in venues throughout the South, and began writing songs – alone, or with a writing partner – in the early 80s, many of which were subsequently recorded by folks like Albert King, Luther Allison, Preston Shannon, and Barbara Blue. She released her debut album, Southern Woman, in 1993. Blues & Angels is Carroll’s 7th album, and her fourth for the Catfood Records label.
The songs on this album are all originals, penned by Carroll and co-writers including long-time collaborator Mark Namore, along with William Lee Ellis, and Stephanie C Brown. The album pulls together an eclectic mix that represent a cross-section of Americana and roots styles, including ballads, blues, gospel, adult contemporary, contemporary Christian, new country, and some New Orleans-inspired grooves.
Produced by Gaines, Blues & Angels features Carroll on piano and vocals, along with a stellar group of studio pros, including guitar ace Will McFarlane. There are guest appearances by Johnny Rawls, Rocky Athas, and Bernard Allison. The rhythm section includes Steve Potts, Dave Smith, Rick Steff, Derrick Young, and Steve Selvidge, along with Muscle Shoals veterans David Hood, Clayton Ivy and Justin Holder. Background vocalists include Reba Russell, Rachel Robinson, Nancy Apple, Lorina McMinn, Trey Hardin, Daunielle Hill and Barbara Blue.
Top tracks include the opener, “Soak Me in the Spirit,” a mid-tempo blues with a solid gospel groove and some tasty guitar from McFarlane. “Somebody Gotta Dance” is a solid mid-tempo country rocker with a catchy, gospel-y refrain. “Wrapped in an Angel” is a slow, moody piece that features Mark Narmore on piano, a rhythm section including Dave Smith and Steve Potts, Trinecia Butler on backup vocals, and some wonderfully understated guitar fills from McFarlane.
“Mama Don’t Like It” is a mid-tempo country rocker with a quasi-feminist message. “Headin’ Home” is the funkiest track on the album, complete with vintage wah-wah guitar and some suitably greasy organ, creating a solid groove. “Road Angel,” with its propulsive quarter-note bass groove, vintage-sounding electric piano, and subtle slide guitar weaving in and out of the track, could easily be at home on a Bonnie Raitt album. The album’s intimate closer, “Mississippi Me,” feels like its most personal track. It’s stripped-down to just the basics – piano and vocals – and is solid in both songwriting and performance.
The 11 tracks on this collection are strong, both compositionally and lyrically. The arrangements and playing are very tight, if somewhat dispassionate. It would have been interesting to have heard these same songs produced in a “live” studio environment. Unlike with her previous efforts, Carroll approaches many of these vocals with a languid breathiness. It’s a stylistic choice, perhaps intending “smokiness,” but it comes off as more of an affectation, and has an odd impact on both her pitch and her timing. This approach is, for the most part, a distraction from the otherwise solid songs themselves.
Blues & Angels is definitely worth a listen or three; the songwriting is solid and personal, and the studio bands provide a crisp foundation. But I would encourage listeners to also check out some of her earlier works – and live performances, for that matter – to get a better sense of Carroll’s solid vocal capabilities.