With a sound anchored in the roots and grooves of Americana music, Nellen Dryden offers up a mix of past and present with Standstill.
Although recorded in Dryden's adopted hometown of Nashville, TN, Standstill's mix of cosmic country, southern R&B, and roadhouse rock & roll began taking shape in New York City. It was there that Dryden began mixing her childhood influences — including her father's country music favorites — with the jazz, soul, and blues music she'd studied at Sarah Lawrence College. Meanwhile, she found a continuous collaborator in Jules Belmont, an electric guitarist and pedal steel player whose approach to music was shaped by the broad horizons of world music and the multi-cultural explorations of Ry Cooder. Together, the two carved out a unique sound that was both fresh and familiar, laying the brickwork for the pair's eventual move to Tennessee.
A modern-minded album about the human condition, Standstill is rooted in sharply-written songs that encourage Dryden's audience to love, listen, and live with compassion. There are references to racism (the socially-conscious "What the Differences Are"), feminism ("She Wants It All"), and the detrimental effects of technology upon real-life interactions ("Come on Honey"), with Dryden's lyrics focusing not only upon the songwriter herself, but upon the world around her. Set to a soundtrack of grooves, guitars, and Stax-worthy keyboards, Standstill is something rare in the Americana world: an album that's both danceable and lyrically-provoking. It's music that targets the heart, head, and feet. Music with movement and a message.
It's also a testament to Nellen Dryden's strength as a live performer. Standstill was recorded straight to tape in East Nashville, without click tracks or studio trickery. The band performed together, capturing each song in a series of live takes, with Belmont serving as Dryden's multi-instrumentalist once again. Also returning to the fold was producer Josh Hahn, who'd previously worked with Dryden on her earliest recordings in New York City. Rounding out the studio crew were drummer Jon Truman, bassist Jonathan Beam, keyboardist Jimmy Matt Rowland, and acoustic guitarist and singer Cy Winstanley, the latter of whom can be heard trading harmonies with Dryden on the album's final track, "Cowboy and a Comforter."
The group tracked each song on an RCA analog console from the 1950s, playing together in real time, capturing everything — including Dryden's vocals — at once. The old-school approach suited the songs' natural charm. Warm, gritty, and clutter-free, Standstill nods to the way records used to sound, long before this kind of rootsy, southern-leaning music was ever called "Americana."
The album's title even nods to that simpler era — a time when people could live at a slower pace, without the noise of the modern world pushing them along — while also referencing contemporary events. Recorded during the summer solstice, while the sun seemingly stood still during its long, slow trip across the June sky, Standstill now makes its debut in 2020, a year in which disease and racial injustices have brought the globe to its own standstill. There's never been a better time for universally-minded songs like these, shot through with socially-progressive lyrics and honest, human emotion.
Influenced by Lucinda Williams' phrasing, Erykah Badu's rhythmic emphasis, Bonnie Raitt's bluesy belt, and Patti Griffin's melodies, Nellen Dryden isn't just standing still with her debut record. She's standing tall, too.
Written by Andrew Leahey
Flower photo by Sarah Gallina