Colter was always an alternative country singer-songwriter, which is precisely why she was such a fitting participant on the legendary "Wanted: The Outlaws" album back in 1976. Her brand of country msuic was infused with rock, blues, Gospel, and honky-tonk brush-strokes, and her lyrical style was always confessional and earthy. This originality was what made her one of the biggest-selling artists in the stretch from 1975-1981: She scored three country-pop/crossover hits during that time (including her million-selling, elegiac "I'm Not Lisa" in 1975) and a string of heavy-hitting Top 5 country albums that also crossed over to the Big List.
Though her finest artistic work was arguably her second Capitol album, 1976's classic "Jessi," she has, amazingly, outdone even her best work thirty years later with this stunning new set, produced by fellow-legend Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones, etc.). "Out of the Ashes" marks nothing less than the return of a legend in full command of her powers. Colter always managed to write honest, truly American "rebel" music while remaining unquestionably feminine, and this album continues that legacy with an extra tank of gas in the Cadillac.
Though career-wise she eventually faded, to a certain extent, into the "shadow" of her longtime husband Waylon Jennings and the desire to raise her children, Colter erases any doubts of her own viability with this red-hot recording. The product of a certain level of recovery after Jennings' death in 2003, the tone of this record is truly one of redemption, breaking-free from the past without denying heartache, and moving forward with all cylinders firing.
Colter opens the record with a haunting, almost lonely version of "His Eye is On the Sparrow," -- a nod to her Gospel roots influences. Her voice has retained all of its former warmth and power, but with the new character and wisdom that comes with the fine wine of age. The song is at once defiant, devotional, and vulnerable. It sets the stage for an album that communicates the astonishing sense of emerging from the firestorm of life, only to stand tall after the healing rain has washed the landscape clean. Yeah, it's THAT fresh. You can SMELL the greatness on this record.
From the emotional opener, Colter launches into "You Can Pick 'Em," a romping, snarly, kick-the-walls down blues-rocker. The force of the song is driving as Colter sings about a man who picked some questionable ladies in his time, but finally met his match in the "one from Arizona" (Colter was born, raised, and now lives in Arizona). The song is an instant reminder of past Colter classics like "Is There Any Way?" or "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle." This time, she brings the same churning energy with a wink-in-her eye charm and the outstanding production of Don Was. "Starman" is another thrill -- here Colter seems to be channelling all that was so unique about her writing/singing in the 70s but again allows the Was production and knockout band wrap itself perfectly around the "summer-y" feel of the lyric and vocal delivery. "The Phoenix Rises" is the centerpiece of this record, and here Colter's brilliant piano underscores the message: she has survived a tough business, a tough but rewarding marriage, and the test of time to stand tall. Yet, the song is distinctly feminine and poignant.
"Out of the rain," written by Tony Joe White, is a personal testament to the late Jennings, and another surefire winner-of-a-track. Colter is joined on the song by the swelling chorus of her local church choir, the smoky sounds of White's vocals and, best of all, by the truly spectral voice of Jennings (who had once laid down vocals for this unreleased track in the eighties). Again, Don Was helps the amazing Colter turn this song into an instant classic of the genre. Buyoant, powerful, and charged with emotion, it is one highlight in an album full of them.
Next, Colter swings back into a good & greasy barroom blues-fest on "Velvet and Steel." On this song, one gets to appreciate the extremely gifted phrasing of Jessi Colter's voice as she urges the groove along, churning it, speaking of her "slow-movin' daddy...Come on. Come on!" Her cover of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35" is a real coup. Colter has enormous fun with the lyric and tears it up while Was keeps the production loose and expansive.
"So Many Things" is the goose-bumper on this great record. Colter seems to be channeling her halcyon days with this piano ballad, yet her melodic sense of style and arpeggios have never been more fresh. The song is an almost jolting reminder, after all the fun, that this album really emerged from a terrible loss and the need to rediscover and move onward. Truly haunting, truly artful.
Country fans of all sorts will love "You Took me By Surprise," and "Never Got Over You," the latter being a winsome duet with Ray Herndon (of Lyle Lovett's band), who co-wrote a few tracks on this disc with Colter. The album's closer, "Please Carry Me Home," co-wrote and performed with Colter's son Shooter Jennings, is a gut-wrenching and moving ballad, almost hymn-like in its impact. A fitting bookend to an album that seems to take such a complete and rewarding sonic journey over the course of ten songs. The musicians and arrangements are exquisite on all tracks, with some of Nashville's finest at work alongside Colter. Kennedy's engineering deserves its own award come Grammy time, as will Don Was, who has done for Jessi Colter even more than he did for Bonnie Raitt in the late 80s--not only illuminated her great talent, but brought it to a new level of brilliance.
Of course, this disc belongs to Jessi Colter, front and center. Better than ever, bolder than ever, wiser than ever, and back from the ashes, indeed. This atmospheric and evocative record needs to be in any and every country, roots, rock, pop, or alt-country collection. A classic--TRULY classic--effort from the original Lady Outlaw.