The press release accompanying Sarah Burton’s fifth studio album, Give Me What I Want, uses the phrase “new age wild west” to describe the fresh batch of songs by the “indie songstress.” But even though her DIY street cred is indisputable (her discography to date is primarily available directly from Burton herself), the “indie songstress” tag underestimates Burton’s massive artistry. The Toronto native is continuing a strong tradition of pop songwriting infused with a healthy dose of country, folk, and Americana; I wouldn’t hesitate to compare her to the likes of Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and even rockers like Tom Petty. And that’s why I love the “new age wild west” label: on Give Me What I Want, Sarah Burton effortlessly carries this songwriting torch into the 21st century.
Burton’s four previous solo albums all strike that fine balance between organic and meticulously crafted. For Give Me What I Want, Burton and producer Elijah Ford set up shop at Public Hi-Fi Studios in Austin, owned and operated by Jim Eno and Brad Bell of the veteran indie rock band Spoon. The Austin/Ford/Spoon contingent is the perfect match for Burton, toughening up her music and expanding her sonic and rhythmic palette. Producer Ford gives every song exactly what it needs and nothing more, whether it’s reverb-drenched droning guitars or just a tight rhythm section groove, and it all serves to amplify the potency of Burton’s evocative and engaging songwriting.
The album’s lead-off single, the catchy-as-hell “Smiling For The Camera,” is a brilliantly sardonic take on 21st-century dating. It’s dipped in decorative 80s swizzle, with a pounding four-on-the-floor groove and synth leads borrowed from The Cars, but it doesn’t sound out of place on this otherwise rootsy set; in fact it somehow fits in perfectly next to whiskey-soaked ballads like “Still Feel The Same,” “Love Like This” and the emotional title track, which all feature a light coat of Texas sheen from Sam Kossler’s tasty pedal steel. There’s plenty of sweet country flavoring throughout, whether it’s Leigh Wallenhaupt’s airy fiddle on “Secrets To Keep” or the gospel-tinged “Time To Go” buoyed by the voices of Canadian folk trio Sweet Alibi, but producer Ford keeps more than a little bit of rock and roll in the picture as well. (Extra kudos to drummer Jason Baczynski and bassist Christ Konte, the rock-solid rhythm section gluing everything together with a thick deep pocket.)
But it’s Sarah Burton who shines here, no matter who or what is surrounding her. She possesses a powerful vocal instrument, capable of a wide range of emotions from breathy and silky smooth to rough around the edges and back again. It’s a voice that draws you in to her compelling narratives, conveying equal amounts of yearning, vulnerability, innocence, and hard-earned wisdom. She opens the dramatic mid-tempo rocker “Love Is In The Air” with a low-register whisper, and gradually turns up the heat until she’s shrieking “Love is all around…and scattered all over the dirty ground” with a voice that’s cracking with desperation, while the powerhouse band builds the tension until the track is practically bursting at the seams. It’s a killer! In a marketplace that’s positively saturated with “indie songstresses,” Sarah Burton is a breath of fresh air. She’s got killer chops and stories to tell, and Give Me What I Want grabs you and leaves you wanting more. I expect this album to sound as fresh 25 years from now as it does today, and I can’t wait to hear what the future holds for Sarah Burton.
Photo Credit: Sarah Burton by Jen Squires, courtesy of the artist.