There’s a thing that humans do: We put things within boxes and boundaries, so that we might, somehow, understand the world around us. We have a deep need to know where something or someone fits in the greater scheme of things, even though nothing and no one really does. “This fits that. That means this.” We do it with people, pets, and politics. And we definitely do it with music, carving out constructs we call “genres” and sealing off their borders as best we can.
Then along comes an artist like Yola, whose Walk Through Fire album feels like an artistic butterfly flitting about, completely unaware that it’s supposed to stick to one style. Rather, it far prefers to cross-pollinate its listeners with bits of country, soul, pop, gospel, and more. It’s an album that harkens back to the golden years of FM radio — the 1970s — when the Fifth Dimension, Dolly Parton, and Dusty Springfield all played side-by-side, and it does so with just the right amount of pomp for its particular circumstances. None of that should be surprising, considering that producer Dan Auerbach created the old-school sounds with help from old-school players with credits like “Elvis Presley,” “Johnny Cash,” and “Aretha Franklin” on their CVs.
The set kicks off with “Faraway Look,” blending Phil Spector-style pop with Robert Flack-style soul, replete with chunky bass, lush strings, and soaring vocals. As with so many of these songs, it’s a fantastic exercise in restraint and release. Yola teases with the former before leveling with the latter.
There’s a breeziness to some of the songs that belies the depth of their emotion. But that’s yet another part of the intentional tension between restraint and release that makes each moment so potent. “Shady Grove” sways and swells as if Lawrence Welk took the Shirelles on a picnic. Things get decidedly more country on, aptly, “Ride Out in the Country,” but without ever forsaking Yola’s inherent soulfulness, whereas “It Ain’t Easier” melds country with gospel, the way God intended.
By four songs in, we’ve heard sitar and strings, piano and pedal steel. On the fifth tune, enter fiddle, harmonica, dobro, and washboard, at least some of which come courtesy of bluegrass phenoms Ronnie McCoury, Molly Tuttle, and Stuart Duncan. And we still haven’t gotten to Vince Gill’s harmonies on “Keep Me Here.” So, if you’re still trying to quantify or qualify this record, you’re doing music wrong. This album is one place where open borders are a decidedly good thing.