Driftwood: A Review
by Jeff Dorgay
In case you missed Nicki Bluhm’s debut album, Toby’s Song in 2008, this talented San Francisco artist has grown considerably. Her first effort sticks more to a more laid back, folk groove, with some serious bluegrass influences making for a very friendly record, but if you judged Bluhm on this effort you might pass her by – and that would be a big mistake.
On many levels, Driftwood is a quantum leap from her first record. Bluhm’s clear tone is now front and center, with a rich, ballsy tone that puts her in the same league as Linda Ronstadt’s best. And much like Ronstadt at her peak, the record is tastefully crafted, featuring a smooth, seductive mix that just floats between your speakers. While Bluhm could very well become the next big thing, this record could easily become an audiophile classic as well. A big thanks goes to Dave Simon-Baker from Mission Bells studio in San Francisco. Bluhm told me that they recorded on a “very special reel to reel deck that was given to the studio by Bob Weir.” While not in stone just yet, Bluhm hinted that Driftwood might just be available on vinyl soon.
Driftwood has a wide range of different song styles, going easily from an AOR sound to a bluesy feel, and a substantial helping of all out country. Bluhm admits that she loves Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, “you know the strong female voices.” She shares their sense of independence as well. On “Jetplane” she cautions “If you want my love tomorrow/you better give it up today/cause I ain’t makin any plans anymore/and I don’t know how long I’ll stay.”
When explaining the wider range of styles on the new record, she gives a fair amount of credit to husband Tim Bluhm and Daren Ney, who all have different musical perspectives. “It really helps to have three songwriters in the band.” On repeated listening, you’ll swear that you’re picking up on other styles too, but Bluhm blends them craftily, borrowing and paying homage, but never stealing. That’s her gift.
The record begins with “Carousel”, slightly melancholy, yet warm and inviting, where Bluhm reflects on an early relationship and the possibility of becoming entangled again when she sings, “When you came back, I only asked that you not turn my world around again.” The next tune, “Before You Loved Me” starts out dreamy as the first, but gets a heavy dose of grit half way through as Bluhm belts out the main chorus before slowing it down again.
The next few tracks take a definite turn for the twangy, to great result, sharing the mike with husband Tim. Bluhm admits that a good portion of the songs are about her, but she does try to write some songs from another person’s perspective as well. “Women’s Prison” isn’t about me though, she laughs. “It started out as part of a songwriting workshop I attended in Yosemite last summer. Looking out from a friend’s house, I could see the woman’s prison.”
And much like the great records from the 70′s, every track on this disc is strong-the level of playing is first rate from start to finish, with a lot of space and air complementing the players. A welcome change in today’s world of the loudness war. Driftwood hits the record store today and while it is also available on Amazon, iTunes and a few other download services, it would be a shame to only hear it as a low resolution file. This is a record that you will truly enjoy on a great hifi system. –Jeff Dorgay
Recorded at Mission Bells, SF Ca / Laughing Tiger, San Rafael Ca