Erica Sunshine Lee – Elixir
Georgia native Erica Sunshine Lee has produced seven studio albums of uniformly high quality and the latest, Elixir, is a sprawling fifteen song collection that solidifies her claim to ranking among the best traditional country performers working today. The kick out the footlights rock and roll gusto she conjures from her influences spikes a number of these tracks in unexpected ways. The blues plays a big part in her songwriting, both musically and lyrically, but it’s always cut with a healthy dose of attitude to make it more rugged than it might otherwise sound. There’s plenty of unexpected sensitivity running through a number of these songs reflective of the variety of sounds Lee was exposed to during her formative years that still exert a tight hold over her imagination. This is the pinnacle of Lee’s recording achievements so far – while there is a certain amount of fat and repetition on Elixir, Lee’s ambition is apparent and Elixir hits far more often than it misses.
“Shut Up Heart” is clever and first class raucous country rock with equal parts brains and attitude. The brains is apparent in how well put together Erica Sunshine Lee’s songs are. Each of the individual parts hangs together with the next and adds up to a whole greater than those single components. She pulls deeper from traditional country songwriting tropes with the track “The Bottle Ain’t Enough”, but it never comes off as any sort of pose. The nuanced acoustic trappings of “Karma” probably reflects more about Erica Sunshine Lee as a person up to this point and has a playfulness reflected in the wordplay and vocal delivery. She shows a real talent for taking the genre’s longstanding clichés and invigorating them with her personality and embodying her experiences through them.
“My Favorite Word” has an equally personal veneer. Much of the intimacy here is, undoubtedly, a byproduct in the change of instrumental direction. Piano is the predominant instrument on this song and accompanies Lee’s vocal with graceful and naturally evolving melodies. Despite the abundance of songs, none of these fifteen cuts run on too long and the brevity they show works to their advantage. “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It” has the same sort of lean, economical approach to this mode of songwriting manifested in a different way. It has a musical arrangement cut close to the bone and vocal contributions to match, but it’s delivered with immense style and panache. “Pills and Booze” has a big chorus, but this is a song otherwise full of unmitigated misery. Lee gives an entertaining, but appropriately pained, vocal. “Jesus and Georgia” is its musical polar opposite and one of the album’s most considered acoustic based performances. This is a page ripped straight from Lee’s autobiography and speaks to her experience growing up in the Deep South and how it shaped her.
“Briars to Ferns” is one of the album’s better lyrical turns and belies any misconceptions about this being just a rollicking country rock effort with a few ballads added for extra measure. This, once again, feels like an overtly personal piece of songwriting and succeeds quite well. Lee really brings the goods on “Drunker”, a musically and vocally playful number with a lot of bounce from the first note on. “Take the High Road” concludes Elixir on another personal note, but Lee does a tremendous job of mingling the personal with the universal here and anyone who’s experienced trials in their life will undoubtedly relate to this song.
Everything on this album comes honestly. Despite clearly sporting her influences, Erica Sunshine Lee’s songwriting never feels imitative. She stands, instead, as one of the genre’s supremely gifted stylists. Elixir is, undoubtedly, among her greatest studio achievements and may rate as the peak in due time. Any lulls that result from its lengthy running time is mitigated by the sheer amount of inspiration emerging from its tracklisting.
8 out of 10 stars