Kill or Be Kind

Samantha Fish

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Kill or Be Kind Review

by Thom Jurek

After releasing two excellent -- but very different -- records in 2017, Samantha Fish spent the last year undergoing some changes. She moved to New Orleans and left her longtime label Ruf Records for Rounder. The guitar slinger has always stretched herself musically. For years she soaked up examples imparted by mentors in her twin pursuits as a guitarist and bandleader, transforming what worked in her own image -- she remade the blues that way too. On Kill or Be Kind it's the worthy ambition to become a better songwriter. Not content to pen rhyming couplets to frame blistering solos and riffs, she has, since Belle of the West, sought the place where melody lives. Fish and Grammy-winning producer Scott Billington sought out top-notch co-writers to collaborate on the album. Jim McCormick returns for four songs. Kate Pearlman and Eric McFadden who usually write for country and pop artists are also here with Oklahoma roots rocker Parker Milsap and Ohio bluesman Patrick Sweeney. Fish cut the record in New Orleans and in Memphis.

Love is the theme on this album. It's everywhere. So are the many changes that go along with having it, losing it, and abandoning it. Fish runs the blues voodoo down on the squalling slide opener "Bulletproof" with noisy, howling production that weds Billy Gibbons' nasty distorto-boogie to Tom Waits racket-making musicality. Immediately following, the title track's swampy Rhodes piano, organ, and roiling horns meet her incendiary vocal and a loose backbeat. "Watch It Die" is smoking blues-rock with killer lyric poetry. The words get rung out with a passionate vocal that matches Fish's wrangling slide guitar and punchy horns. "Fair Weather" weds gentle rock to R&B in a deep ballad about the aftermath of a broken romance. "Love Your Lies" pops out of the box with a '60s girl group vibe; testifying Memphis horns and Fish's guitar cook it down on the backbeat. Its hook is irresistible. The whomping tom-toms that introduce "Dream Girl" frame Americana pulled taut between desire and disappointment: "If I could give up the happy ever after/I'd be gone…." The guitar break is short and spare, yet it underscores all the emotion the lyrics convey. "She Don't Live Around Here Anymore," is sweet yet deeply sad soul. In the grain of Fish's voice lies a vulnerable tenderness that's held in check by the wisdom in her shattered heart. The bluesy R&B in "Dirty" underscores the dark, hurtful, ravenous side of love and names it unreservedly. Closer "You Got It Bad," is revved-up, gritty soul-blues where horns and Wurlitzer frame Fish's snarling slide and searing vocal. The cut sends the album off on a cautionary note that's as much a confession in a cracked mirror as an affirmation of love's redemptive and destructive power. Kill or Be Kind is a watermark for Fish. Her writing, singing, and playing all serve the truth of what she seeks here: the heart of song.

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