Odd combinations in music can sometimes feel like alchemy. Phantom Limb’s unique selling point is faultlessly performed country/Americana propped up by the blazing soul vocals of lead singer Yolanda Quartey. If Aretha Franklin were to attempt a Neil Young covers album, then it would probably sound a lot like The Pines.
The title track kicks off the album and is the undoubted highlight. The pleasant surprise of hearing Quartey fire on all cylinders is matched by the backing vocals. It’s a track sporting oodles of energy and it doesn’t stay in the same place for too long – whether it’s the Crosby, Stills & Nash style harmonising or the gear shifts in instrumentation, it sets the bar high.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the album doesn’t quite match it. What initially sounds wildly different begins to settle into a more comfortable groove. The genre-crossing carries on with hints of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street era R&B, gospel and Janis Joplin, but it’s predominantly the country influence that holds everything together – we’re firmly grounded in Nashville rather than New Orleans.
Other noteworthy tracks include Give Me A Reason, Gravy Train and Harder Than Stone. The comparatively low-key It’s The Only Way is also a highlight, but you’ll be checking the songwriting credits to check if it’s a Neil Young cover. Yet by the end of the album the lengthy High And Dry starts to drag things down a little.
The Pines is a sturdy collection of songs that will please country fans, and it’s worth a listen for Quartey’s voice; her vocal performance is certainly the star around which the other elements revolve. But as a whole the album feels a little too slick. The band is comprised of a group of session players, and therefore the sound adheres to the high professional standards required of a jobbing musician. The production is also crisp and clear, but such smoothness can jar with the bar-room and bourbon atmosphere the band is trying to create.
Phantom Limb have the potential to be much more than just another country band, but the songs are too traditionally grounded in the genre. The themes of escape, love and longing are generally staples of country music and you sometimes wish for a little more idiosyncrasy and less cliché in the music and lyrics. Well-written, poppy and immediately accessible songs they may be, but other than the soulful flourishes from Quartey there’s little to distinguish them. The Pines ably achieves what it sets out to do, but somehow you’re left pining for that little bit more.