There are few things that are more healing than getting the hell out of town. Maybe it’s a solo trip. Maybe you bring a friend. Definitely a lot of music. Don’t say a thing to anybody. Just get in the car and go. Work it out on the road.
Safe Distance – the new album from singer, songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Janet Simpson, isn’t a concept record, but it does take a journey. From Nashville to Reno (well, almost), to running away from demons, retreating from your troubles, hiding in plain sight, and returning liberated – ready to skip away again while your past looks on with a dropped jaw. But nothing here rambles aimlessly: Simpson’s characters long to get free (and succeed) while navigating it all with confident purpose. They are reflective but never middling. They hurt but move to healing – or take the time to care for others. And they don’t shy away for a good time – even if they’re having too much of one.
The songs of Safe Distance came to party as well. “Nashville Girls,” the album’s first single, kicks everything off with plenty of swagger and style – less an indictment of artists but those who are attracted to the noise art makes. “Reno” and the “Safe Distance” pair “Ditch Trilogy” Neil Young with Lucinda William’s gutbucket sense of meter. The [Dixie] Chicks would kill for a comeback song as breezy and carefree as “I’m Wrong” – a song born for a sunny-day-windows-down adventure. The Fender Rhodes powered vamp of “Mountain” is lust in search of the perfect parking spot. And “Wrecked” is an immaculate kiss-off that moves mercurially with slyly wicked lacerations worthy of Nick Lowe or Van Dyke Parks.
But it’s not all raucous: The albums more subdued moments often conjure thick, stormy atmospheres. “Slip” and “Ain’t Nobody Lookin’” conjure the late night bleariness of classic Tom Petty but with choruses he could never pull off. “Double Lines” has a steely-eyed saunter the recalls the late Ennio Morricone. “Silverman” is so stark that it will leave you frozen in time. “Awe & Wonder” also takes advantage of the Rhodes – letting its bells ring out into an ether swimming in synthesized voices and fretless bass.
This last detail is worth mentioning because some of the album’s sonic touchstones were late ’80s – early ’90s boomer statements by Bonnie Raitt, George Harrison, and Paul Simon – influences that were somewhat off the radar of the wunderkind engineer / mixer Brad Timko, who has been producing amazing records with a mix of analog and digital gear from the Communicating Vessels studio in Birmingham, AL, where Simpson and her band call home. Simpson and Timko worked closely in order to achieve the albums sonics, where minimalism reigned supreme. The songs were loosely written and rehearsed, but the band plays with supreme tautness, leaving plenty of room for Simpson’s powerful voice and lyrics – always sharp and occasionally hilarious – to haunt the air just so.
Unbelievably, Safe Distance is the first time that Simpson has widely-released an album under her own name. This is not to say that she hasn’t been busy: Since getting her start in Atlanta in the late ’90s, Simpson has sheltered her dark whimsy under the guise of Delicate Cutters, wielded formidable guitar attacks with bubblegum skronkers Teen Getaway, toured the U.S. and Europe as a crucial member of Wooden Wand and the World War IV, and found a new writing partner in fellow Birmingham, AL musician Will Stewart – with whom she fronts the lean, atmosphere-forward duo, Timber, while also lending her many formidable talents to his solo material (and vice versa). It’s a lot to take note of – and still doesn’t cover her being the secret weapon on dozens of other albums for a wide array of artists. But Safe Distance proves once again that Simpson is a force of nature – and it’s her best work yet.
Janet Simpson’s Safe Distance will be available on vinyl, CD and digital/streaming platforms on March 19th via Cornelius Chapel Records.