It’s been said of Eight Belles, the fallen filly whose name and legacy Jessi Phillips and her band have wrapped themselves in, that “she ran with the heart of a locomotive on champagne glass ankles.” That dichotomy applies to the music on Girls Underground, too, in particular to Phillips’ voice, a force of nature that bowls you over from the first time she opens her mouth on the stunning, delicately strummed intro to “Buried Child,” an impressionist collage of images played out over a guitar figure that owes as much to Nick Drake as Loretta Lynn, and doesn’t let you up again until the mournful kiss off of “Most of the Time” has plead its case. “They don’t care if you live or die,” the chorus goes, “and neither do I, most of the time.”
Hailing from Oakland, California, the voice of Eight Belles is a former Michigan farm girl who grew up under the feet of a father who made his living as a professional country and bluegrass singer, guitarist, and fiddle player. She began writing her own pop and country tunes in her early twenties, lending her voice and lyrics to Brooklyn bands such as Bowling Green and The Millers. Apart from a lovely, elegiac take on British crooner Richard Hawley’s “Tonight The Streets Are Ours,” and the stripped-down alt-country confessional “Simple Man’s Wife” by Aaron Young, this set of hard scrabble narratives was written entirely by Phillips, who also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University, and they reflect her rural upbringing and musical heritage in equal measure.
A rotating cast of sympathetic players add a warm wash of organs, cellos, and heart-string strangling pedal steel, while guitarist Henry Nagle overlays the whole thing with perfectly pitched leads. Nagle is restrained and tasteful when he needs to be, as when he plays Luther Perkins to Phillips’ Johnny Cash on the on the steamrolling hayride pop of “Nolchi”, but Eight Belles is no one-trick pony, and he can be an electrifying lead guitarist when the spirit calls. Witness the honky-tonk swing of “Not Gonna Leave,” the swirling cosmic Americana of the title track and “Someday Baby,” and the stomping barn burner that is “Great White Sea.” That voice is front and center though, right where it needs to be, by turns huge and delicate, overwhelming and precise. Even if the lyrics Phillips’ wrapped it around weren’t so evocative, if the phrasing weren’t so seductive, even if the music around it weren’t so consistently thrilling, this would still be a lovely, timeless sounding record. As it stands, it’s a stone cold classic. [+]