It’s no small enterprise to self-fund an album, let alone record said album in the venerable FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Home to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Jerry Reed, Etta James, Wilson Pickett (among others) at various stages, that roster of well known names were backed by the “Swampers;” a group of extremely talented session musicians with a distinctive sound that defined many of the biggest hits from the Motown and Stax labels.
No small enterprise indeed, but it is an enterprise that Amanda St John tackled head on. The Muscle Shoals Sessions is her second full album after 2016’s Grow which received critical praise, including from that doyen of Americana music, ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris. St John’s story isn’t a simple or easy one. Although she had been singing since the tender age of 14 there was a near-death experience at the age of 32 in a horrific car crash which led to her first release, the EP Where Is The Man, an arresting collection of ballads and torch songs that set out her stall, musically speaking.
In 2018 St John experienced vocal problems that almost ended her career and which resulted in an enforced five month break from singing and a recommendation for complete vocal rest. Overcoming obstacles and challenges seems to come naturally to St John.
And what of FAME Studios? It seems to be a popular location with NI artists at the moment with Foy Vance also having recorded a recent album there. St John recruited legendary Swampers David Hood (bass) and Clayton Ivey (keys) for her recording sessions and the sound is, as you might expect, very Muscle Shoals. The sound is definitely one that suits a certain type of artist and St John, a singer/songwriter know for her powerhouse vocals, direct delivery and honest writing style wears it like she was born to it.
The album has all the things you would expect from this kind of set up; strong hints of true old-school rhythm and blues, backing vocals that are completely on-point, punchy keyboards and a horn section to die for. On tracks like ‘Don’t Think You Know’ the horns take the lead and set the pace. A spot of Hammond organ provides the melody line and the whole thing belts along with real punch. Catchy rhythm and a soaring melody define the title track and ‘Muscle Shoals’ may just be one of the stand-out songs on the album, with well-judged vocal harmonies, a real groove and some confessional lyrics thrown for good measure. ‘You Got Me’ is a real slice of bouncy 4/4 time pop that gets your feet tapping along.
The tracks ‘Bring Me’ and ‘I’ll be Here’ are bluesy, slower and more heartfelt numbers. There’s a sadness in these songs and St John dials down the vocal delivery to produce a sound that is genuinely tender and touching. There’s a little side-step into something more smoky and jazz-influenced on ‘Walk Away’ and it turns out to be a pleasant and interesting detour.
In terms of blue-eyed soul singers there are very clear comparisons with the late, great Dusty Springfield – on some tracks St John displays that rough edge and enormous depth to her vocals that Dusty was known for. Staying with 60’s icons and sounds, ‘This Is My Life’ sounds like it was lifted straight from an early Kinks album and ‘Truth’ could be a modern re-working of Ketty Lester’s beautiful and timeless ‘Love Letters (Straight From Your Heart)’.
St John certainly has the qualities that a great vocalist should have – power, range, expression and great delivery. On Muscle Shoals these are complimented by high calibre musicians and production values that create something timeless but also contemporary; nods towards the big influences but taking it somewhere new. Overall, well worth a listen or three.