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Daniella Cotton - Small White Town Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    9
release year:    2005
label:    Hip Shake
reviewed by:    Charles Andrews

ImageSo there I was, the kid who finally got into the candy store, but I didn’t have to sneak in, it wasn’t locked, it wasn’t after hours, it wasn’t dark, in fact it was really bright and damned hot. It was in Austin this past mid-September, it was the Austin City Limits Music Festival and there were 130 … just pause a moment and comprehend the candy storiedness of these numbers … 130 bands, on eight stages … in three days. 130 bands. In three days. (And I have to add, although many of them were not my favorite cup o’ chai, nearly every frickin’ one of them was a really good band or solo performer, even if you never heard of them.) Acres of dark chocolate, no coconut.

Too many choices, for some people. Just about right, for me. But I quickly figured out that to maximize this opportunity I had to be informed and organized, and stay focused. Plan and literally map my choices, then stick to them. Arrive early/stay late, don’t get lazy, ignore triple-digit temperatures and abused feet. No t-shirt shopping, no long food lines. If I found a band was not worth the time investment I had allotted, it was an opportunity to move on and get a little extra time in front of a more worthwhile group, or maybe even squeeze in one more not on my original itinerary. I was pretty satisfied notching 52 bands by the time the last notes faded into the humid night (plus two more – great ones – in the clubs in town). But that also meant … 78 I didn’t see. (For a full report on the fest, check here and my Heybale! disc review).

There were priorities, of course. Wanted to catch all of Van Morrison’s first day closing set, up close enough to make it count, and did (by arriving an hour early and worming my way to the front). You never can tell when he’s going to perform off the charts. (Settled for brilliant.) Had to see my first Flaming Lips show, and had to see it start to finish. (If you ever have – you know why.) Had to check out Matisyahu, to see if the Hasidic reggae mon from Brooklyn was the dazzling trail blazer of his first album (recorded live at the Austin club Stubbs, so this was sort of a return to a scene of triumph for him), or the no-future bore of his second. (Pretty much the latter.)
Then there were the next level priorities. The Raconteurs would’ve been first level but I’d seen them once, up really close, at an in-store show at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. Willie – seeing him in Texas is exactly like a pilgrimage to Mecca, isn’t it? How are John Mayer, Nickel Creek, Gomez, Los Lonely Boys in person – up to the hype? Massive Attack. Ben Harper. Thievery Corp. The Shins, from my hometown of Albuquerque. Couldn’t go home and have someone say, You did see Ween, didn’t you? – and not have the right answer.

But a funny thing happened on my way to the stage featuring one of those priorities, Gnarls Barkley. I passed by the stage with Danielia Cotton … and I could not force myself to keep going. Just couldn’t leave. Kept telling myself, wow, she’s really good, okay, one more song, but can’t miss Gnarls. One more. Well, just one more. Then I finally relaxed and realized how fortunate I was to have landed there and how stupid I’d be to leave the presence of someone who was singing her ass off like I have rarely heard, for some group that might be great or might be yesterday’s news before you learn how to spell their name. Get to brag, yes, I’m hip, I saw Gnarls Barkley … they were okay, or have the pleasure of remembering over and over the great performance I witnessed by this unknown (to me) Jersey screamer as I spread the word about “my discovery.” (When I came to her stage there were just a handful of people, and by the time she finished the crowd had increased 20- or maybe 40-fold. So maybe a few others discovered a new favorite that day.)

I was going to make some flip remark about her sounding like the progeny of a Janis Joplin-Tina Turner marriage (now possible in Jersey) but I couldn’t figure out the genetics-obstetrics, and besides, that’s just a variation on what everyone says about her. It is a useful, if towering, shorthand to give people who haven’t heard Danielia an idea of her sound; when you try to describe her, you do go straight for the superlatives.

But here’s an interesting thought that popped into my head. Although Janis might be the only one you could come up with if asked to name an even gutsier, more raw and powerful female rock singer – emphasis, rock – than Tina Turner, I realized that not only is Cotton in the same ballpark with those two heavy hitters (though maybe on the bench, at this point), but she’s actually, slightly, a little more rock and a little less soul than either of them. I listened carefully throughout her show, and to this album over and over and over, waiting for the accented word or the stylistic nuance, and it never came. She is as pure a rock singer as you will find, living or dead. Which is an oddity not as much because of her race but because of her background, raised by a mother who was a jazz singer and who sang in a gospel trio with her two sisters (Danielia’s aunties). That had to be a huge influence, but according to her own story she was from an early age more Led Zeppelin than Leadbelly.

I tend to save a bon mot or two for the tail end of my reviews, I guess to reward those who have the stamina to make it that far. But I’ve just got to go with this now, because for certain rockers this will make their juice glands kick in big time. When I saw her in Austin, at the end of her outstanding set of mostly originals she announced her last song by saying, “This is a cover that I’m sort of becoming known for. I haven’t recorded it yet, but a lot of people are asking me to…” Whereupon she swung into the toughest, dirtiest, kickassinest, most balls-to-the-wall true-to-the-almighty-original version I can even imagine coming from any creature of any gender or race, of one mighty, mighty rock classic: AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” I recognized the opening power chords and shook my head in disbelief and grinned in anticipation, and sure enough she just nailed that sucker til it couldn’t breathe. Now, THAT’s the way to leave a stage.

Small White Town is not like that. In fact it took me the longest time, more than a dozen play-throughs, to realize that there are few speed rockers here. Mostly mid-tempos. But it’s what Danielia does with them that makes them rock like nobody’s business. She leads off with one of the three, but “Devil in Disguise,” while one of the best numbers on the album, is also an anomaly in its spare but intense arrangement. Part of her art is her canny understanding of the spaces so important to rock and roll, even while the amps are up to 11 and the noise is all-consuming. “Devil” has a lot of stops and starts, leading off with herky-jerky tom-toms and just the occasional short guitar bursts. Maybe the idea was to give the listener a chance to hear just what that voice is capable of. Mission accomplished.

You might think the rest of the album would be a bit of a letdown, but this is one of those rare recordings that not only is devoid of a single throwaway cut, it gets better the more you listen to it. And that’s my benchmark for the best kind of music, the most cherished, most played. Something we’re in danger of missing out on as we descend into 21st-century jukebox singles-only download mentality about music: the great album. The mural, rather than the snapshot, of what the artist is capable of. I think of Danielia Cotton as a major voice, a major rocker, yet this album of mostly slow-to-mid tempo burners is completely satisfying. Interestingly, after each of the three wild ones, the next number opens with either sweet solo acoustic guitar, or piano. And that’s just fine. The album flows like a wild river with its calm pools at the edges.

Cotton wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs, and that’s a very good sign for her longevity because these are uniformly interesting and meaty songs. No matter how expressive your voice is, you can’t dress up a pig in Armani and expect it to shove it down the runway. These are powerful expressions of life lived hard, not always by choice, and lessons learned with hope intact, crafted with an understanding of what magical mix of melodies and arrangements sticks in your brain and psyche. It doesn’t hurt that the band, both here and in her live show, just kicks like madmen. Did I mention she slams a mean guitar herself?

You will like, remember, and sing along with these songs. You will discover new favorites each time you play the album. The music business is so unpredictable in its formulaic mindlessness that I have no idea if Danielia Cotton is going to rise to the top. But if she never makes another album, Small White Town is a treasure she can be proud of. I have a feeling it’s only the beginning.

Cotton says in interviews she feels blessed to have had sympathetic and accomplished pros walk into her life the last couple of years and believe in her talent, and have the chops to do something about it, and producer/co-writer/ guitar and keyboard player Kevin Salem seems to be a perfect example. His production couldn’t be more perfectly attuned to her talents. I especially love his judicious use of her singing her own backup vocals. There is no sense of the album being anything other than a whole piece, yet there is such variety in the approaches and instrumentation of the arrangements that it stays fresh and interesting listen after listen. That Voice is always on top, crystal clear in its inspired breaking and wailing, no matter how much or little noise accompanies it.

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