Part of the legend of the Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman is the time he spent as a session guitarist in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a nexus of great American music. Here Allman backed artists ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin, his brilliant guitar work channeled into supporting another artist, the results, of course, often transcendent. Music, for the most part, isn’t made that way anymore. If your name or band isn’t on the front of the album, most producers want you to recede into the background as much as possible. But Gina Sicilia‘s Love Me Madly has that Muscle Shoals’ vibe, a talented singer backed by a powerful band that’s allowed to dip a toe into her spotlight, permitting everyone to share the attention.
The twist here is that the band, for the most part, is one person: producer Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. While he’s used to a band approach to making music, he handles most of the instruments on the album. He’s also the son of the legendary Jim Dickinson, a session guitarist who probably taught his children the importance of the music behind the performer. But Dickinson’s approach is only possible due to Sicilia’s majestic voice, which has a catch of blues snarl, and a relentless energy. Sicilia’s songwriting also lends itself to this kind of production, with horns and slide guitars existing next to each other, just like those epic Muscle Shoals tracks.
The title track is a perfect example of all of these factors conspiring to make a great song. Dickinson’s clean-toned guitar lays down an electric strum somewhere between folk and funk as Sicilia enters the song, full throttle, her gorgeous melodies ready to go. Strings join the song next. Dickinson plays with some Spanish-inspired electric guitar. The track is grand but deliberate, with social distancing between each musical element, so the song breathes and you can always hear Sicilia.
Dickinson’s brother Luther, also of the Allstars, guests on three tracks, providing his trademark raucous slide guitar. “For a Little While” is a country ballad with the most country of lyrics: “I’m mostly OK / But I miss you this way.” The sadness of the line is amplified by Luther’s mournful resonator work, which doubles Sicilia’s melody, seemingly trying to understand her pain by repeating it. “How My Dreams They Go” is a faster track, pure 60s pop, complete with horn stabs and a lead sax line. Luther parachutes in for a brief slide solo toward the end of the song, recalling Allman’s inability to keep the blues out of pop songs. It’s a fun twist.
Dickinson and Sicilia are perfect collaborators who seem to understand each other. Sicilia talks about wanting Love Me Madly to be a little grittier than her previous albums and while I don’t know that I’d call this gritty, it’s certainly organic. It’s got a live sound that makes you feel like you’re in the room with a band, when really it’s the mad genius Dickinson doing it all himself on guitar, bass, and drums. And Luther’s slide work adds to that live feeling, with a charming lightness that calls up the mental image of a session guitarist being told to “add something here” as studio time is running out, and then coming up with something amazing. It’s a great way to make a record, the perfect mix of old ways and new ones.
*Feature image credit: Madison Thorn courtesy of Blue Élan Records