A Skilled and Stylized Voice
For artists who’ve been toiling away at their craft for years, it sometimes takes the right record at the right time, cooked up with the right amount of honesty, talent and savvy, to take off the way they’ve always dreamed it might. It is in this fashion that Nashville singer, songwriter and fiddle player Lillie Mae may find herself one of 2017’s most notable alt-country up-and-comers, a rightfully earned position with her polished and poignant Forever And Then Some.
As a member of Jack White’s backing band and one of the latest artists to have her record produced at White’s Third Man Studio, Mae’s pedigree is enough to gain the interest of a prospective listener. However, the delicate, tired warble that she unleashes from the get-go is why they’ll keep listening. It’s clear from the opening track, “Over the Hill and Through the Woods,” that she has style, skill and a poetic lyricism that dives into meaning and questioning — and this is one artist who has paid her dues.
“Honky-Tonks and Taverns” is the type of song fit to soundtrack either of its namesakes with mandolin solos and crying fiddles. Mae uses her falsetto and quick wrists to keep the song moving in a familiar, country style. The middle chunk of the record fluctuates between moderately-paced folk songs and slower, more evocative ballads. “Loaner” serves a metaphor of sorts while “Honest and True” is a sassier track, one that shows off some of Mae’s best playing with its excellent fiddle solo.
The title track is a solid introduction to Mae’s overall sound — and a heartfelt admission of affection. But even in the sweeter moments, Mae’s songwriting isn’t all sunshine and rainbows: “Oh please take me back/ I’ll stay straight,” she sings. Throughout the album, Mae’s songs feature spritely, springy mandolin, a true Americana sound that gives an element of elegance on mid-tempo tracks and ballads alike. “Nearing Home” has elements of the quintessential traveler song any country-folk album always seems to have, but Mae’s version has a sense of strength, as if she receives her homecoming after a weary journey where just one more ounce of strength is required.
“To Go Wrong” and “Some Fine Day” have a heavy sense of melancholy about them, lyrically speaking, while the melodies and layers of strings are light, airy and a tad mystic. The former focuses on the innate fear of losing something good once it’s in one’s grasp, while the latter wonders when loneliness will leave. While seemingly unrelated, these meanings come from the same place — a vulnerable place, where negativity bias is real and requiring of constant combat. But when Lillie Mae puts these feelings out into the world in her songs, she’s cool, calm and collected; she’s never a hothead or overly aggressive, and she’s true to country roots in that way. No matter how sad she might be, she sounds as if she could still get up and entertain a room with her song.
Album closer, “Dance to the Beat of My Own Drum,” infuses a modern sound, one that is rather removed from the tracks that came before it. Mae drops her drawl a bit in favor of a more playful tone and extra-high backup harmonies.
White’s slick production does a fine job as a supporting actor to Lille Mae’s lead. Through speakers or headphones, listeners can hear every instrument crystal clear, with her voice always atop everything else. Rhythms are subtle, and the strings are vibrant and full. If Mae sounds like a pro, even on her first big solo record, it’s because she is one, having working in the company of them for so long.
Her musical accompaniment on the record is strong: her siblings — Frank Carter Rische on electric and acoustic guitar and Scarlett Rische on mandolin — are locked in with Mae every step of the way on the style front. The rhythm section includes bassist Brian Zonn and drummer Tanner Jacobson; and the record also features keyboardist Dean Fertita, who is a member of White’s The Dead Weather and Queens of the Stone Age, banjo player Ian Craft from The Howlin’ Brothers, and Old Crow Medicine Show pianist Cory Younts. Mae’s own excellent vocals are complemented by harmonies from McKenna Grace Rische and Carey Kotsonis.
There are shades of Amanda Shires in the fiddle riffs, hints of Sheryl Crow in the steady acoustic backing and a little bit of Miranda Lambert, even, in the melodic vocal stylings. But with her own bold style (cropped hair and a dare-you stare dominating the album cover), Lillie Mae isn’t setting her work out into the world in anyone’s image but her own.