Yola Takes a 'Walk Through Fire' on Dan Auerbach Produced Debut

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Rating: 9.5/10

For the past three years straight, I have come away from the Americana Music Festival convinced that Yola Carter was the next breakout Americana artist. For three years, it hasn't come to fruition, partially because Carter is based in Britain and only played a few non-Americanafest dates per year, but more because she never released an album. With only on 2016 EP, Orphan Country, she never properly took hold in a genre that values the album in a way that few do anymore. On Feb. 22 that all changes as Yola, who has shed the “Carter” and gone with the mononame, releases Walk Through Fire.

For Walk Through Fire, Yola teamed up with producer Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio, and on his own Easy Eye Sound label. It was an inspired pairing. Yola has always sounded a bit like Roberta Flack doing an album of Dolly Parton covers and Auerbach, who has plenty of history exploring the sounds of the '70s with his band The Black Keys, has brought a lush and soulful sheen to the album that few Americanafest attendees who have only seen Yola and her acoustic guitar will be ready for.

The album comes roaring out of the gate with “Faraway Look,” which begins with a subtle croon over a gentle swell of horns, lulling you into a sense of security before the chorus, where the orchestration swells and Yola unleashes the full power of her massive voice. It takes a couple of listens to get past that voice and focus on the lyrics, but when you do, you are rewarded with a song about love gone stale. During the verses, you can hear the resignation in Yola's voice as her partner's attention wanders, with the chorus playing like a plea, a full-throated cry for attention, love, or even acknowledgement.

Another soulful highlight is “Lonely the Night.” As the organ floats in and out, Yola belts “the stars are crying. They know they broke their promise to me” before the wall of sound crashes in and she belts the chorus, “Lonely the night, only the night belongs to those who've lost their love.” It's another vocal gymnastic feat that opens another aspect of Yola's voice, the proto-disco diva in full form.

But don't worry if you're a fan who has enjoyed Yola's more country-oriented songs. There's plenty of that to be found on Walk Through Fire. On the title track, which features instrumental help from Molly Tuttle and Ronnie McCoury, Yola references the two major life events that shaped the writing of the album. Figuratively, it's the end of a toxic and abusive relationship, with Yola even managing a slight twang (albeit with a bit of a British accent) when she sings “ain't no use in prolonging the fact that I cannot stay.” The second is a more literal interpretation, a house fire that found Yola inside a burning residence and having to literally “walk through fire” to her rescue. While these two things may not be similar on the surface, they are both equally important markers in Yola's tale of survival.

On “Keep Me Here,” Yola takes a detour into cosmopolitan country, a slick throwback to the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers ballads of the '80s, given even more cred by the addition of prominent backing vocals from Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, who provides the high end while Yola explores the lower end of her register. It's a nice breather between the bigger and lusher soul songs.

“Love All Night” doubles down on the country feel and is the closest to the mostly acoustic material that made her an Americanafest sensation. A steel guitar driven blue collar ballad that taps into Yola's own history of poverty to lend authenticity to lines like “love all night, work all day. Ain't nothing wrong with living day to day. Ain't nothing wrong with living pay to pay.”

February is entirely too early to start earmarking albums for year end “best of” lists, but the only way Walk Through Fire won't make a ton of them is if this is the most bountiful year in recent Americana history. Those Americanafest faithful who have been preaching the gospel of Yola for the past three years finally have the proof they need to convert their friends. If Walk Through Fire is what Yola and Dan Auerbach serve up as a first course, it's going to be interesting what a few albums of experience brings. I, for one, am happy to be along for the ride.

Yola only has three American shows announced currently, a pair of Nashville album release shows and a pre-Americanafest California date but keep an eye on her website for more. Here is what's currently announced:
Feb. 22- Grimey's New and Pre-Loved Music In-Store- Nashville, TN
Feb. 23- Analog at The Hutton- Album Release Show- Nashville, TN
Aug. 4- Hollywood Bowl- Los Angeles, CA