American singer-songwriter Amber Ikeman grew up in the state of Florida then moved to live and work in Yellowstone National Park in Montana. This journey echoes that of Australian artist Harmony James, whose first album, Tailwind, was created while she was working on the Barkly Tableland in the Northern Territory, and just as the Barkly lefts its mark on James’s music, so has Ikeman’s state of residence influenced the music she creates in her second album, Rise.
Rise is, therefore, not the music of sunshine and beaches – from its first song, ‘Wild Buffalo’, it’s evocative of spaces and land and history, and of relationships forged around those elements. Ikeman’s lineage is cited as folk and Americana, and there is traditional country music in there too. Her voice has a beautiful pure quality, and she has wonderful control of it (with excellent diction – longtime readers will know how highly I prize this!). When a singer can turn a phrase the way Ikeman can there’s a temptation to say they sing ‘sweetly’ but while Ikeman’s tones are sweet, there is an edge there throughout that is intriguing. Although that sweetness does hook you immediately.
Ikeman’s is a voice that simultaneously suits an old-time sound and modern songs. Which is, probably, a way of saying that it’s a well-developed instrument that can adapt to its material. That adaptability is evident in the first three songs, as she moves from the grit and force of ‘Wild Buffalo’ to the plaintive love song ‘Cheyenne’ to the ballad ‘The Firefigher’. Ikeman’s voice has a lot of nooks and crannies, and there are surprises accordingly. But it’s all very well to listen to a voice – the songs have to be there to provide the right vehicle, and Ikeman has them. She’s a storyteller who embraces emotional tales, and that’s not a way of saying they’re all love songs. There are songs of strength and challenge, and of loneliness. The love songs that are on the album also acknowledge the aforementioned spaces and land and history – albeit the history of the relationship concerned – as well as distance and challenge.
While the musical arrangements of the songs are spare – not sparse – all the better to support the songs and the singer, there is a lot going on in each song, to the point that before each song is over you know you’ll want to go back and listen to it over and over again. This might be a second album but Ikeman is no sophomore – this is a very well-rounded and well-executed work that should attract listeners from across the spectrum (including pop) to bring Ikeman the audience she deserves.
Rise is available now on Bandcamp.