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Nicki Bluhm

To Rise You Gotta Fall – 2018 (Compass)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Nicki Bluhm

Nicki Bluhm is pissed. The context of "To Rise You Gotta Fall" can't be missed; Bluhm's marriage blew up in the last few years, and Bluhm is here to write and sing about it.

Bluhm has the voice of a gritty angel. She's the closest thing we have these days to Linda Ronstadt (see e.g. "Can't Fool a Fool" and "How Do I Love You"). Bluhm fares very well in the comparison. Her subject matter of sadness and betrayal never relents from start to finish. But in pain, great work arises, and "To Rise You Gotta Fall" hit that mark.

Bluhm's singing has never been more direct or assured. She has fronted her own band (The Gramblers) for years now, but this is her collection alone. It was recorded at Sam Phillips' studio in Memphis with the steady producing hand of Matt Ross-Spring, who has brought a fulsome sound to Margo Price, Jason Isbell, and now Bluhm.

Bluhm's anger is unrelenting, and by the sixth track ("I Hate You" with an unmistakable Patsy Cline vibe), one wonders if there will be a redemptive message buried in the angst. Probably not. Bluhm's material is heart-felt, her lyrics clever. There's never a commonness or misstep of phrasing. Her rare talent is on full display here.

The title cut lays down a groove, and the story it tells is cutting. Yet, buried in the narrative is a lovely, almost throwaway, line: "Can't have a rainbow without a little rain." That's as redemptive as Bluhm is feeling. "How Do I Love You" and "Last To Know" bookend the tracks, and what's in between is a rich, but not plaintive, condemnation of love lost.

It's dangerous to evoke Ronstadt and Cline to describe a contemporary singer, but if anyone can bear the comparison, it's Nicki Bluhm. She rises above her circumstance to deliver a sharp and stunning work.