Allison Moorer, The Duel (Sugar Hill)
by: Steve Horowitz
Allison Moorer needed only a dozen days to record her new 11-song CD, her third full-length release in two years, with an unrehearsed band in the studio. The result has that ragged but right quality with crunchy rock-style guitars, bluesy bass, and big beat percussion. Most importantly, Moorer's deep-throated vocals come off strong and direct. The auburn-tressed diva sings her self-penned (with her husband Doyle Lee Primm) lyrics with a soulful intensity that compliments the couple's literate story songs about love, death, and the meaning of life.
Moorer, nominally a country singer, borrows more from the classic country rock sound of the seventies (think Neil Young rather than The Eagles) than anything currently on the country and/or rock charts. Her Alabama drawl slides over the music like horseradish sauce on rare roast beef. Moorer's voice conveys a piquant sadness born of experience. "There's a foreign movie/Up on your silver screen/Black and white and silent/If you don't count the screams," she sings on "Baby Dreamer." The dread in Moorer's throbbing cadences suggests the formality of her pain. However, Moorer refuses to wallow in pity. "Baby Dreamer" ends with her looking behind the theatrical curtain for the sunshine outside. Moorer even makes fun of herself and other self-pitying female vocalists in the biting "Melancholy Polly," which begins "Melancholy Polly spills her guts on stage/She can't get her jollies any other way." Moorer knows confession may be good for the soul, but it doesn't always make good art or entertainment.
Fortunately this Southern lass knows how to deliver, as well as write, a song with a punch. She's not afraid to fight, as on the title song where she goes toe-to-toe with a God that either doesn't exist or doesn't matter. In this case, Moorer knows that someone she loved has died and God let it happen or didn't care. Using boxing metaphors Moorer sings "Flesh and blood's a sissy fist/Death's a gold glove pugilist/And every day it's hit or miss." But Moorer aims to hit back and not just take it. Sure, Moorer realizes she's doomed to lose her duel with God. Everybody dies, but she's still going to do battle. Steve Conn's somber piano playing and the gentle wail of Sonny Red on harmonica enhance the song's strong yet stark quality.
Moorer's backed up on the rest of the cuts by Adam Landry on electric and acoustic guitars, John Davis on bass and guitars, and R.S. Field on drums and percussion. Landry does a particularly fine job of building a deep groove on "I Ain't Giving Up On You" and "When Will you Ever Come Down." The strummed-stringed rhythms feel like they could go on forever, like a winding stream babbling its way through the woods in spring. Davis and Field always play in the pocket, except when they purposely stand out to ornament a song with fills and such. For example, Davis's steel guitar licks on the drunkard's plea "One on The House" sound more like an Indian sitar raga than anything found on a traditional country record and endows the song with a sense of spirituality.
The fiery red head displays a stubborn cussedness on this release, Moorer's first on the independent label Sugar Hill. She sings of the importance of standing against the crowd on songs like "All Aboard" and "Once Upon a Time She Said," with the chorus of "It's unpopular/To be unpopular." Moorer comprehends that her personal liberty comes at a cost. The general excellence of The Duel should make Moorer famous, but she knows that life isn't always fair.