By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
Namoli Brennet is an icon of queer country. She was one of the first openly trans women to hit the Americana scene 19 years ago. She’s been making indie records, touring solo, and financing/producing herself since before it was cool, playing the folk/women’s circuit constantly, and consistently making fine records that speak to the here and now.
Her latest, Light it Up, continues her streak. Its lyrical content is overwhelmingly focused on the idea that justice is freedom is equity is love, and it comes wrapped in her unique and ever-evolving personal sound.
Brennet’s never been averse to incorporating electronica into her tonal palette, but on Light it Up, she’s gotten downright spacey – in a good way – without losing sight of the song structure. Far beyond the typical singer-with-a-guitar offerings, she uses loops, ambient layering, and advanced stereo imagery as essential elements of her song construction.
She has a way with time-based effects, and this sense of space and exploration is palpable on each track. (Brennet even refers to this herself with the song “Chasing Sound.”) These drones and loops that erupt into melody are almost another singing voice, and support the strong messages found in every tune.
The title track is a great example of this. It’s an uplifting shot of hope, with tales of folks who were so close to making their dreams come true but just needed to make that final leap to light the fuse: “You’re never gonna find / Some other better time / Some bigger, clearer sign / Light it up while you still can / Make a life over just plans.” This gentle kick in the ass is combined with beautifully lush layered guitar swells drenched in reverb and infectious swirling beats; this touch of bombast with a supremely laid-back vocal delivery gets under your skin.
Her smooth alto is akin to Americana songwriters like Rosanne Cash or Suzanne Vega. This album could hold its own in comparison to Cash’s Black Cadillac, or Vega’s 99.9F° (an electronica collab with Mitchell Froom), two albums that share its sonic DNA.
Thematically, there is outreach to the downtrodden throughout. Literally. The album starts with “All You Refugees,” a song that both quotes the famous Emma Lazarus poem (“Give me your tired, your poor”) and expands upon it, as if Brennet is embodying the voice of Lady Liberty: “When you flee, you come to me, you refugees.”
This message is not limited to refugees of other countries, nor is it couched in patriotism. In the context of queer music, it speaks to the necessity of liberty and safety being available to all of us. When trans and queer youth make up around half of the people experiencing houselessness, it’s hard not to think Brennet is reaching out to them as well.
Later, on “Sign of the Times,” she floors you with the stories of folks who work their lives just to “wind up putting groceries on a credit card,” a person who had to take out a second mortgage, contrasting them to billionaires she calls out as criminal: “Well, it ain’t fair/it ain’t right/but it’s a sign of the times.” She pulls no punches, as the theme continues on “The Working Poor”: “The powerful are living off your suffering.”
The album finds its funk on “Til the Last Is the Next,” a bluesy paean to freedom fighting: “I won’t rest til the rest us are free / ‘Til the last is the next in line”; and continues on “Innocence,” a doubled-vocal slide-guitar groover that riffs on major Biblical prophets, with lines like “The devil’s in my veins”; wishing for a simpler time and answers.
Speaking of the devil, he pops up again in “Good Night Virginia Woolf,” a literary lullaby with a lovely melody and hypnotic hand drums under tremolo guitars: “You barely cast away your last amen / When the devil’s got you by your feet again / Good night, lovely Virginia Woolf.” It’s both eerie and comforting.
We’re lucky to have Brennet openly wrestling with the angels and devils of America in the context of Americana, while completely queering its typical sonic landscape. There are a ton of goosebump moments on this record and many lessons to learn. Put it on, and in Namoli’s words, “Get hip to kindness/Come back to love.”
“Light It Up” is available on all streaming services, and hard copies + merch can be found here.