Erica Sunshine Lee’s songwriting and performing style is wonderfully dramatic and can’t help but be filled with the myriad of contrasts in her own character. She has tremendous vim and vigor, a rock and roll spirit that loves passionately and wants to raise a little hell. She’s also enormously sentimental about her upbringing and has a strong connection with the spiritual side of her personality. The musical arrangements and backing accompanying Elixir’s fifteen songs are largely cut from the classic country cloth, but many of them are further enlivened by rock music’s influence over her musical imagination. She has deceptively flexible talents as a singer – Lee’s equally at home with the rockier material as she is the country and her ability to emote and dramatize her lyrical content never wavers.
“Shut Up Heart” puts the album’s best commercial foot forward. This is a snappy, well-written mainstream country hit in the making, but Lee doesn’t excessively dumb it or the musical backing down. This is a songwriter with enough command over our lexicon, including an ear for phrases that have nearly universal resonance, catching something on the wind and committing it to a recording. It’s quite inspired despite covering familiar territory. The seventh album from Erica Sunshine Lee finds her ability to write very personal songs continues to grow. “My Favorite Word” is lush without ever being saccharine and has a particularly focused vocal from Lee. It’s the likely highlight of the album’s first quarter.
“Medicated” and “Whiskey Bent and Jail Bound” co-opt some of Outlaw Country’s attitude, particularly in the not so subtle nod to Hank Williams Junior in the second song title, but it’s more or less an affectation. These sorts of things would matter more if Lee didn’t back up the pose with substantive musical and lyrical achievements. Both songs rely on well worn subject matter in the genre, but they both excel thanks to her individual talent and the second, in particular, gives us our first taste of her storytelling abilities on this album. “Pills and Booze” demonstrates another side to the preceding sentences. In the hands of a crasser performer, a song title like this would have turned into a mildly funny catalog of errors thanks to intoxication or else a grotesque ode to the glories of getting trashed. Lee confounds expectations like those and, instead, pens a quasi-blues about using them because you feel like there’s no other choice.
“Jesus and Georgia” is a sensitively rendered and deeply personal piece about Lee’s relationship to her faith and the place of her birth. The deeply Southern qualities in her voice, her underrated phrasing skill, and the clear respect she shows the experience depicted in the lyric help make this performance one of the album’s best. “Briars to Ferns” has a gentle slant in common with the preceding song, but the subject matter differs and Lee’s touch with the lyrics takes a slightly more poetic turn than before. She revisits spiritual matters overtly for a final time on the song “Mustard Seed” and does it with ample grace. This is, at its heart, a paean to her God and the positive impact that spirituality has in her life. Elixir’s finale “Taking the High Road” is the perfect closer for this album. On each new release, Lee comes closer and closer to revealing the complexity of her personality and experiences in full – “Taking the High Road” embodies pursuit more than any song on Elixir. This is as fine and as varied of an album as one can expect from the genre in 2016 and should have an across the board appeal rather than being confined to a narrow group.
9 out of 10 stars