Barely two months ago Courtney Marie Andrews won ‘International Artist of the Year’ at the Americana UK Awards. While richly deserved, the award might suggest a recent breakthrough, particularly when the winner is only 27. But this year’s winner has been touring since she was 16, has five albums to her name, and her most recent, 2016’s Honest Life, received wide critical acclaim. Courtney Marie Andrews is no newcomer, but an artist whose thoughtful, sensitive and poignant songwriting has gathered a widening following. Her new album May Your Kindness Remainshould boost that fan base much further. It not only builds on its predecessor but forges a new direction, both lyrically and musically. By a comfortable margin, this is Andrews at her very best.
Honest Lifeis very much a road album, not necessarily written on tour but it does speak of that nomadic life thus giving the record a restless feel. Andrews wrote much of May Your Kindness Remain while touring but rather than the sweep of ‘life’ that previously inspired her writing, she concentrates his time more on the people she has met on her way. Andrews narrows this theme further by pointing frequently to the unrealistic aims that characterise contemporary American life. Taking that further too, Andrews deals with the very real damage to so many people wrought by such futile striving. She faces head on the taboo surrounding mental illness, the number of people struggling with depression and the many more who know a sufferer.
Yet the record isn’t about just accepting this as the lot of early 21st century America. Sure there is much that is broken but throughout the record Andrews shows a defiance and her weapon? It’s in the title, it’s kindness. There is definitely hope and some form of redemption.
The sound is different too. Previously Andrews produced her own albums.May Your Kindness Remainis produced by Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits). He has created a live vibe with a fuller sound from the excellent band that enhances Andrews’ pure natural voice. Between them Andrews and Howard draw a straight line back to 1970s Laurel Canyon with its fusion of country rock and singer songwriter.
The band deserve individual mention; Dillon Warnek(lead guitar), Daniel Walker andCharles Wicklander(keys), Alex Sabel(bass) and William Mapp(drums, percussion).
A feature of the album is the way a song opens with Andrews’ beautifully clear timbre, then she is joined by her gospel backing vocalist C.C White. After that comes a shimmering reverb that moves the song into something akin to a hymn. Title track ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ sets down that marker. And not just musically, as the title says, it’s about the importance of kindness above all else, “And if your money runs out/ And your good looks fade/ May your kindness remain”. She’s tried hard, aimed high but lost everything. But that doesn’t make her a bad person.
‘Lift the Lonely From Your Heart’ has more reverb and then organ. These only add to the poignancy of this song about digging deep into how a relationship flourished then withered, the impact of rejection and yet a plea that it needn’t be over yet. This is a perfect country song.
‘Two Cold Nights in Buffalo’ is certainly from the road. It has a bluesy, almost wearied acceptance of the road life and its inconveniences. But behind that lies a sharp observation of the hollowing out of a community in the pursuit of ‘regeneration’. “What happened to the middle class, mom-and-pop, five-and-dimes?/Soon they’ll be knocking it all down to build that high-rise”.
‘Rough Around the Edges’ is the sparse lament of a poor soul in the depths of depression yet blaming herself for her plight. Andrews speaks directly to anyone facing such difficulties as her voice soars with emotion. Though with more powerful musical drive, ’Border’ is related, “But you cannot measure a man until you’ve been down the deepest well”. At least ‘Took you Up’ has some hope, you needn’t have much but if you love each other you’ve got what matters. Some of the album’s finest guitar shimmers away here.
The record’s peak comes in ‘Kindness of Strangers’. The band and C.C. White all get behind Andrews and together they create an anthem, “Getting by on the kindness of strangers”. The backing chorus is spine-tingling.
There last of the reverb comes on the final track, ‘Long Road Back to You’. Both metaphorically and literally this is about being far away and aching to get back home. You can feel that urgency and hope, it will be ok once we get there.
Courtney Marie Andrews has been compared to many but to this reviewer showing his age she combines the lucidity of Joni Mitchell with the vocal range of Emmylou Harris. Producer Howard said he likes making records you can live in. This is a record that will live through very many plays as there is so much to each song.