Saturday, March 2, 2024

Heather Little: “By Now” (2024) CD Review

Heather Little is a singer and songwriter from Texas. She released Wings Like These, her first full-length album, back in 2013, but at that point was already known for her songwriting. “Gunpowder & Lead,” co-written by Miranda Lambert, was released as a single by Lambert and became her first big hit.  Heather Little had also co-written Miranda Lambert’s first major single, “Me And Charlie Talking,” which was included on Lambert’s Kerosene, released in 2005.  And she co-wrote Sunny Sweeney’s “Helluva Heart,” on Sweeney’s 2011 album Concrete. That same year saw the release of Killin’ Uncle Buzzy from Travis Meadows, that album including “Minefield,” a track that Heather Little co-wrote and that features her backing vocal work. In 2021, Heather Little released a live album, which was the second volume in the Old Quarter Live Sessions series. And now she is releasing a new studio album. Titled By Now, this album features original material written by Heather Little, along with her own rendition of “Gunpowder & Lead.” And she is joined by some talented musicians, including Duke Levine on guitar, Audley Freed on guitar, Jared Tyler on guitar, Kevin Barry on guitar, John Jackson on guitar, Russ Paul on pedal steel, Paul Griffith on drums and percussion, Scott Amendola on drums and percussion, John Deaderick on piano and organ, Stefano Intelisano on accordion, Niamh Varian-Barry on viola, Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle and mandolin, Sebastian Steinberg on upright bass, Joe Newberry on banjo, Mai Bloomfield on cello, Van Plating on violin, Bow Thayer on bojotar, and Kami Lyle on trumpet. Frank Swart, who co-produced the album with Brian Brinkerhoff, plays electric guitar, bass, mandolin and piano. There are also some special guests joining her on various tracks, including Patty Griffin.

Heather Little opens with album with “Five Deer County,” a song that she had included on her live album. That earlier recording is a solo acoustic rendition, while this new version includes a full band and features special guest Rusty Van Sickle joining her on vocals. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I could bring him back/I could string him up/But I ain’t no ball and chain/No, I’d rather give him back his name/And let him have all he’s ever dreamed/In a five deer county and an old Airstream.” This track also features some good work on electric guitar. That’s followed by “Hands Like Mine,” which features Patty Griffin on vocals. The vocals on this track are particularly striking, embodying and expressing experience and vulnerability, sadness and ache. “And the boy that gave it to me/He promised me the moon/But all he had was the dark where it belonged/It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t know the rollercoaster we were on/Was a one-way ride straight to hell.” That is a compelling and haunting opening section, particularly the way she says “It wasn’t his fault.” The band then comes in and helps lifts us a bit. Toward the end the person is addressed directly, “It’s not your fault.” But the most striking and heartbreaking line is the song’s main line, “‘Cause they don’t make a ring for hands like mine.” I also like the accordion work on this track.

Leslie Satcher joins Heather Little on vocals for “Razor Wire,” the two sounding beautiful together. “So when the sun sets, fetch your torches/And burn the walls to the ground/Be my razor wire stomping around in circles like a fool/And I’ll be looking for you too.”  I also love the sad sound of the strings, adding to the song’s impact. And check out these lines: “If I disappear please look forever/Spend your time believing a thousand different ways/Spend your dimes and nickels buying wishes from the well/And I will spend my dying breath/Calling out your name.” Wow. This is a gorgeous song that had me near tears. Each track on this album demonstrates what an incredible talent Heather Little has for songwriting, and every song has lyrics that grab us, such as these, from “Bones”: “I killed all my summers crying over spring/And lost my winters to reeling from the falls” and “And I’ll keep that night on my bedside table/And I’ll leave it there until I’m able/To toss it in the box where it belongs.” And though she has written songs for other artists, what better voice than hers is there to deliver these lines?

“Better By Now” is sort of the title track, and it features guest Ronnie Bowman on vocals, the two sounding so good together as they deliver the song’s main line, “I ought to be better by now.” There is something of a lighter sound to this one, even as Heather sings, “Your knife is dirty and your plans are cruel.” Something in her delivery tells us she is going to be all right. We can hear an inner strength, a resilience that is fueled by hope. Heather Little delivers another heartfelt vocal performance on “Landfall,” here her voice supported mainly by piano. I don’t think anyone could be left unaffected by her performance, and by this song as a whole, thinking about the storms in his or her own life. This track features some beautiful work on strings.

There is the sound of a transistor radio at the beginning of “Transistor Radio” before the song quickly kicks in to become a powerful number. “Running hard from all the bastards that knew me by my father’s name/He never wrote, he barely called, he left well enough alone/By the time he really died/I read it on my phone.” Oh man, those lines pack a punch. And I can relate to her lines about saying things she’d never thought she’d say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” This track ends as it began, this time the sound effect lasting a bit longer. That’s followed by “California Queen.” A live version of this song was released as a single in 2022, that being a solo acoustic rendition. She pulls us in so easily with her voice, this song told from someone who is half of a somewhat unusual relationship. “You are my knight/You’re the one who saves me/You are my carnal distraction from the war that’s always raging.” She keeps that royalty theme going with the lines “Your castle walls are so high/You know I’ll fall/But I still climb.”

Patty Griffin joins Heather Little again on “This Life Without You,” a heartbreaking song of loss. I could not keep the tears from falling while listening to this one. The line about the sun rising out of spite hit me. It feels that way when someone you love has died. It seems wrong when the world just keeps going as if nothing has happened. These lines are striking too: “They come over, they call/They send flowers, then they stop/And it’s just me and too much room in our bed.” This is another song that Heather Little included on that live album. The line “If you had it to do over” on that earlier version becomes “If we had to do it over” here. “This Life Without You” is followed by “My Father’s Roof.” That beautiful work on trumpet seems to be coming from the past, from memory, from another realm, a voice connecting the past to the present. And it is a difficult past that must be dealt with. Check out these lines: “My father’s roof is a heavy kind of halo/If you lose it better lay low ‘til he’s through/‘Cause there’s a sniper in the rafters/And it’s only kill or capture/All the bullets are a hundred and forty proof/There ain’t no refuge, comfort or shelter/Under my father’s roof.”

Crystal Bowersox joins Heather Little on “Saint Christopher,” a song that features some wonderful work on pedal steel. And, as is the case with all of Heather Little’s material, it contains some excellent lyrics. “It’s all perfect in the dark/In the morning we are only who we are.” That’s followed by “Sunset Inn,” another song that Heather Little included on her live album, where it was the lead track. Here it begins with some beautiful work on strings. This is a song about seeking temporary shelter, with Heather singing “I’m safe inside, I suppose/This is home tonight/I’m all right.” This is a place to gather herself together, to decide what might be next. Interestingly, this song also uses the word “knight” to describe the man in a relationship (as in “California Queen”): “Don’t throw your heart to a white knight/‘Cause he’s a rodeo clown/He’ll turn the whole world upside down/Just dying to save someone again.” The album concludes with Heather Little’s rendition of “Gunpowder & Lead,” co-written by Miranda Lambert. The work on strings at the beginning immediately distinguishes it from Miranda Lambert’s rendition. It still has that power of the earlier version, but it’s a different sort of power, residing mainly in the vocal work. Van Plating joins Heather Little on vocals for this track, and the excellent string work features prominently.

CD Track List

  1. Five Deer County
  2. Hands Like Mine
  3. Razor Wire
  4. Bones
  5. Better By Now
  6. Landfall
  7. Transistor Radio
  8. California Queen
  9. This Life Without You
  10. My Father’s Roof
  11. Saint Christopher
  12. Sunset Inn
  13. Gunpowder & Lead

By Now is scheduled to be released on April 19, 2024.

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