Erica Sunshine Lee – Elixir
Erica Sunshine Lee is a musical powerhouse who’s earned a tremendous amount of respect over the course of six studio albums and thousands of live performances but, despite those enormous achievements, she hasn’t yet completely realized her unique talents. It changes with the release of her seventh studio album Elixir. The follow up to 2015’s Southern Amendment has every bit as much swagger as Lee’s earlier work, but there are other areas where she shows real growth as a performer and songwriter. There are a small assortment of ballads among the album’s fifteen songs that approach that songwriting style from varying points of view, bluesy country rockers borrowing liberally from the past yet infusing it with a touch of the personal, acoustic singer/songwriter styled material, and highly atmospheric numbers that show greater artfulness than Lee has shown before. The production has a visceral quality engaging the listener on every song.
“Shut Up Heart” has a little bit of smirking humor and a raucous edge, but this is an entertaining song despite the darker shade to the subject matter. One of Lee’s greatest qualities as a singer is the tangible inspiration she brings to every track. “Karma” is one of the album’s more memorable low-key tracks and the production bears a lot of responsibility for how well these tracks work. The acoustic instruments are recorded with such startling clarity that it’d be easy to assume the performance is taking place live and only a few feet away. The song after that, “My Favorite Word”, accomplishes the same goals for similar reasons. It is the album’s first real ballad and chooses to take a more orchestrated feel than later efforts in this vein. Her ear for an attention grabbing chorus helps make “Whiskey Bent and Jail Bound” stand out, but once you listen past the sensationalistic elements making up a lot of the superficial material, it’s fascinating to hear how well Lee balances commercial appeal with storytelling aspects.
“Pills and Booze” has a big time chorus as well, but there isn’t nearly the effort made here to cast the bad behavior in a favorable light. This is a musically entertaining portrayal of someone who, frankly, is barely holding on. Lee knows how to tap deeply into the classic country music spirit, but she’s equally connected to the rock and roll spirit many listeners will hear in this music. The languid, even vaguely sentimental mid tempo sweep of “Medicine” memorably contrasts with its lyrical content. Lee, as a songwriter, never flinches from depicting unhappiness, but she always shows enough wisdom to temper the conflict in her songs with impressive choruses and a great instrumental attack. Erica Sunshine Lee definitely feels an acute conflict between the demons and angels in her nature and a lot of that is vividly reflected in songs like “Mustard Seed”. It’s an imaginatively written testament of faith with gentle acoustic guitar work accompanying it.
“Two Words” comes at a great place on the album; it’s the second to last track and couples a minimalist arrangement with warm, but snarling, electric guitar and a strong bass line. It’s a final exclamation point of attitude on an album that frequently crackles with energy. Erica Sunshine Lee’s songwriting quality shows no signs of plateauing as she continues to get better and better with each new album. Elixir is the latest fantastic release from one of the genre’s greatest singer/songwriters working today.
9 out of 10 stars