Dark clouds form, roil and drift through Out from the Harbor, the new album by Nikki Talley. It’s a moody collection, though the barometric pressure is impressive rather than oppressive. Resonant guitar tones and tasteful percussion set the stage for Talley’s soulful vocal and storied lyrics.
The collection starts with the aching “Rainy Day.” “The world has a funny way of chugging a man after he’s been out on the road,” Talley sings, a line that could reference her own experience as a touring musician. But the steady delivery — the way her voice glides into the high notes before gracefully dipping again — and the slow sway of the melody suggest that this melancholy is no total loss. Darker “Mockingbird” strikes a warning chord, evoking dusty trails and desperadoes. But even here the foreboding is stylized: Think the score to an old Western of vast landscapes and gorgeous horses.
If “Let’s Go Out on the Water” doesn’t exactly raise the serotonin levels, peddle steel and shuffling drums evoke dawn twilight and a silvery lake. The pang is of a happy memory recalled from a less-perfect moment, but the emotionalism is pitch-perfect. “I don’t care where I’ll end up or what’s gonna happen / but I’m taking with me these memories, captain / and for that I thank you / because days like today, I wish would never end,” Talley sings.
The driving, minor chord-fueled “Trouble” elevates the earlier desperado feel several notches. Here, the drums gallop, the guitars wail and Talley’s vocal is both a balm and a whip. All rounded notes and folkloric themes, she still manages to infer a howl and cut to the quick. It’s a standout track, and aptly followed by the banjo-led “Railroad Boy.” Lending a modern flourish to Appalachian folk, Talley manages to pay tribute to her mountain roots while bringing the style into the 21st century. There’s a dangerous thump and a menacing fiddle part, as much saw as melody. Just try to get through this haunting song without breaking out in goosebumps. (The airy, atmospheric “Gracie Blue” also feels culled from legend. Talley told Xpress that it’s one of her favorites, “a tale about a maiden whose young husband-to-be has gone out to sea.”)
“I’m rattling on about my dreams / most of which I’ll never see / and all the while, you stare and smile,” Talley sings on “Travelin’ On.” It a mature song, a kind of “Both Sides Now” with plenty of room to breath, looking at the detours life has taken and assessing it all with a kind of dreamy realism. This is a song that could be country, Americana or folk-rock. With its crisp production and nuanced writing, it simultaneously embraces and transcends all of those categories.
Talley is not the sort of artist to defy classification. Rather she’s always known who she is, what her influences are and where her strengths lie. Out From the Harbor is not without its risks, but it plays like the work of a musician who’s hit her stride and is fully focused on the sort of songs she wants to create. There’s really not a misstep to be found here.
The album ends with “Caroline,” a grit-and-twang-tinged not-quite-love song. A slow fast-dance or a fast slow-dance, the song two-steps with edge. “I’m on an island in some movie / where everything is fine,” Talley sings with a hint of sharpness implying that everything is most certainly not fine. And yet the well-paced track does make for a fine finish to this must-be-heard album.