Amythyst Kiah: Wary + Strange Album Review


Tennessee guitarist and singer Amythyst Kiah won’t be limited by anyone’s expectations. “I don’t want to hear your soapbox talk,” she says on “Soapbox”, the opening song from her third album, Suspicious + strange. “I don’t want to hear how you would do it.” Kiah’s independent spirit, his immense talent and his musical sense give dazzling results on this first Rounder: Suspicious + strange is a rock album that doesn’t respect anyone’s rules other than its own.

Kiah, a loud moaning guitarist, marries country blues with big screen production and unexpected touches – a whistling bass harmonica in the heart of “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)”, spectral choirs hovering above “Sleeping” Queen ”. She leads the journey with her authoritative bellows, which is only made stronger by her courage to express the doubt and desire that lurk below.

Kiah closed her self-published debut in 2013, Dig, with a stripped-down cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” that showcased the breadth of his voice and his tender playing. It was also a nod to the alternative rock that helped her learn guitar as a teenager. She then studied music at East Tennessee State University, immersing herself in that school’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies curriculum. Eventually, her knowledge of vintage American music and her dexterity on the guitar led her to become a member of Our Native Daughters, a string-band supergroup brought together by Rhiannon Giddens in 2018.

When Kiah met music industry lifer Tony Berg (Phoebe Bridgers’ punisher, Aimée Mann’s No matter), she was working on the songs that would make up Suspicious + strange for so long that she had recorded them twice. During a session in early 2020, Berg reinvented “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me),” adding a bass harmonica, along with a flute and mellotron, to its country-blues setting. This led Kiah to dive back into recording the album, this time with Berg as the producer.

Kiah’s instinct turned out to be correct, and Suspicious + strange is a testament to the fact that she followed them. The modern protest song “Black Myself” is already part of Kiah’s catalog; he was included in the debut of Our Native Daughters in 2019, Songs of our Indigenous daughters, where he won a Grammy nomination. This recording was a catchy rendition of the song that highlighted the quartet’s vocal harmonies, punctuated by an accordion solo. At Suspicious and strange, “Black Myself” announces itself with shimmering and shimmering guitar riffs; while both versions have fire, the new one has additional swagger. “I’m going to hold on and smile on your face / Because I’m black myself,” Kiah sings defiantly, his voice soaring.

An intensely personal document, Suspicious + strange examines the realities of being a southern black LGBTQ + woman in songs that groove and shake as they tell their stories. “Wild Turkey” mourns Kiah’s mother, who drowned in the Tennessee River when Kiah was a teenager, while also mourning Kiah’s emotional arrest following the loss. It opens with a finger-played guitar echoing late-night thoughts that Kiah, now 34, keeps returning; the music swells into a maelstrom of thundering drums and buzzing strings as her voice gains strength and fire. When Kiah asks, “Oh Lord, am I ever going to feel good again?” The song opens with an excess of complex emotions.

Suspicious + strange passes like a high-profile conversation. Kiah displays a deep knowledge of how songs can electrify the air and a knack for channeling murky emotions and ruminations distorted by regret into succinct, pointed lyrics. “Ballad of Lost” extends her grief over five minutes, but the song’s arrangement and deliberate rhythm convey all the shock of the split second when she sees a lover with another woman. A slide guitar sheds tears over the landscape as it digs its pain into the verses; “I’m lost / Maybe always have been,” she muses over the chorus, the kind of moment of clarification that only angst can bring.

Suspicious + strange ends by revisiting “Soapbox”; this new version has a slightly faster pulse, just enough to increase his feeling of confidence. Now that Kiah has shown listeners the full extent of what she can do, she’s here to remind them once again that she doesn’t need anyone’s help. “My professional career has been one that I discovered myself in,” Kiah said recently. Billboard. Suspicious + strange proves how revealing this process has been to Kiah and his listeners.


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