Album Review – Yola’s “Stand For Myself”

photo: Joseph Ross Smith

In some media circles, the effort is being made to characterize 2021 as the Year of the Black Woman in country music. Unmistakably, there’s have been some remarkable contributions from Black women in the greater roots/Americana space. Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, and Joy Oladokun all come to mind as excellent songwriters who’ve helped set the pace in roots music this year.

But with all due respect to these artists, and not to knock what they do whatsoever, but you have to stretch to call what they do “country.” It fits much more comfortably in the Americana realm, while it’s performers like Chapel Hart from Mississippi who embody more of the spirit and sonic similarities of country music, though it’s also these more country-sounding performers who often receive less attention and praise.

With the British-born Yola’s debut album Walk Through The Fire from 2019 and with her 2016 EP, she carved out a great little space for herself in the sweet spot between vintage soul music and authentic country that is rarely exploited, and even more rarely executed with such authority. It is a sound that can be quite lucrative and appealing, especially when you have the power behind your voice that Yola does.

Yola’s 2021 album Stand For Myself leans much heavier into the vintage soul space, and further away from country roots of her previous projects. There’s still some flashes of country influence, such as the steel guitar in the songs “Be My Friend” and “Whatever You Want.” But otherwise, it’s mostly a throwback soul record. But shoving all genre concerns aside, Stand For Myself also happens to be a very enjoyable listen, and a really inspiring work.

Drawing inspiration from her own personal struggles—whether it be relationship woes, or her upbringing in a home where music was outright disallowed, and pursuing a career in it absolutely reviled—Stand For Myself is all about breaking from the bonds imposed on you by others, or by institutions, or sometimes, by yourself from fears and apprehensions, and affirming to yourself that you can succeed on your own terms. For Yola, this doesn’t just make a good premise for a collection of songs, this is an autobiographical truth as she’s gone from songwriting pauper to one of the most sought after voices in Americana. That’s what helps put such power and emotion behind her delivery.

Of course, many in the media have pursued characterizing Stand For Myself as a decidedly political record. Certainly there is an outspokenness to this work that shouldn’t be diminished, but the experience of Stand For Myself is much more universal. Whether you’re in a bad relationship, under the thumb of an oppressive job or boss, or feel like society has cast you in a second class, Yola’s spirit in these dozen songs makes you want to break free and seize you own destiny.

It all also happens to sound really really good. Stand For Myself is graced with excellent variety, while also presenting itself cohesively. You’re right to be a little leery whenever you see the producer of an album with a writing credit on every song as you see with Dan Auerbach here, but it’s hard to quibble with the results. Auerbach’s producer output has been easy to second guess over the years, whether its his weird obsession with the tinny rings of the glockenspiel, or pushing performers more toward the classic soul style even if it’s out of their comfort zone. It just happens to be that with this work, more soul works for Yola, and luckily, the glockenspiel is left on the sidelines this time.

Sensing Stand For Myself could be a breakout work and a breakout moment for Yola, professional songwriters from the country realm were brought in to really help tighten up these tunes—most notably Natalie Hemby, as well as Liz Rose and Paul Overstreet, while Aaron Lee Tasjan and Joy Oladokun from the Americana world also lend co-writes. It’s also fair to characterize this record as one that grows on you with subsequent listens, and saves some of its best tracks for last, so patient listening is encouraged.

There really isn’t a bad song on Stand For Myself, and despite the sometimes dour subject matter, it’s just a sheer joy to listen to throughout by revitalizing some of the most infectious and time-tested mechanisms of vintage soul to make music that’s hard to hate. As a country fan, you do wish you could find a few more twangy tracks, if for no other reason than with the talent Yola boasts, you want to be able to brag that it resides within the country realm. But it’s hard to argue with the results here, and refusing to be pigeonholed or pulled by the desires of others is part of the theme and lesson of this album, and Yola’s genre fluid approach to music that Americana has become a home for.

Ultimately, Stand For Myself isn’t a country, soul, or Americana record. It’s a Yola record, which is why it shines, and is likely to endure as entertainment and inspiration well beyond this calendar year.

8/10

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