The Sick Season

Becky Warren

Independent release, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


When reviewing a Becky Warren album, the reviewer’s first task is to resist the temptation to just rattle off lyric quotes all the way down the page. It’d be easy enough to do, but an album with this much heart and guts and craft and wisdom deserves more.

The Sick Season represents a milestone for the Nashville-based Warren, singer-songwriter of hook-heavy, expertly fashioned tunes that fall “on the rock and roll side of Americana.” Following a two-album run fronting her college band The Great Unknowns, Warren delivered a pair of powerful solo albums, the first a fictionalized portrayal of her tumultuous marriage to an Iraq war veteran with PTSD (2016’s War Surplus) and the second a song cycle telling the individual stories of Nashville’s homeless (2018’s Undesirable), with both winning wide praise. The Sick Season carries on their tradition of hooky tunes supporting heartfelt lyrics with a fresh twist: this time the subject of Warren’s probing, witty songs is herself.

It wasn’t her first choice of subject matter. Warren has struggled with depression since her teens, but for many years it had responded well to medication. However, just when she’d planned to be promoting Undesirable and starting work on a new concept album, the meds suddenly stopped working. Left toiling under a soul-draining black cloud week after week, Warren ended up barely leaving her house for more than a year.

At a certain point, though, she began doing what the best artists often do: transforming pain into something beautiful. It’s a magic trick that only gets more impressive the closer you are, and The Sick Season brings the lens in close enough to see individual pores. Maybe the most surprising part is that this album charting Warren’s 16-month bout of depression is anything but depressing; to the contrary, it’s catchy as hell, inviting the audience to sing along to even its darkest moments.

Spooky, reverbed electric chords introduce you to kickoff cut “Appointment With The Blues,” a coiled shuffle full of foreboding. “A ’75 Sunbird full of bad news,” she sings, “Is headed west for an appointment with the blues.” The album takes off from there with the snappy honky-tonk riffing that propels the foot-tapping “Good Luck (You’re Gonna Need It),” supporting a lyric that’s as self-critical as they come: “I’m a tornado blazing cross a blistering sky / Rolling over houses of people I love sleeping unaware.” The heart of this sing-along-worthy barroom anthem, though, lies in a single pungent couplet: “Now I’m a smudge on the moon / A dangerous tune.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“I got uranium 235 in my engine / Never met a soul that couldn’t use unhingin’,” sings Warren in the feisty “Favorite Bad Penny,” noting also that “My Molotov cocktails are always factory new.” The steady-rocking, at times even soaring “Dickerson Pike” finds Warren lamenting that “The pills all taste the same, like glue and desperation / I swallow them and pray they’ll tame the chemicals.” Even at her lowest, though, she’s full of zingers like “I’ve been in this place so long, I’ve named the bannisters.”

At the heart of the album lies, well, the album’s heart. “Tired Of Sick” is a gentle ballad that feels almost like a diary entry or a letter written but not sent, raw and real and devastatingly honest. Longtime friend Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls guests on harmony vocals as Warren recalls better times: “Remember when I was a girl, all cinnamon and horses of plastic / Buttons in mother-of-pearl, Tuesdays scouts and Fridays gymnastics.” Rather than quoting a dozen more lines, I’ll just say that it’s exceptional, and exceptionally moving. Next up is its flip side, the album’s most powerful upbeat number, the rolling, tumbling, jangly and altogether wonderful “Me And These Jeans,” another three-minute tune overflowing with an album’s worth of great lines, one favorite being “I’m on the asphalt with my failures / Regret’s a hell of a jailer.”

From there, Warren invites you to join her in oblivion with the woozy crunch of “Drunk Tonight” before retreating into memory with the deliberate, edgy blues of “Birmingham.” There’s time for one more juking honky-tonk anthem as “RNR” finds Warren wailing “Ooohhh, I’m all false starts / Ooohhh, Are you just gonna stare while I fall apart?”—with a nice assist from Kira Small on harmony vocals—before speculating on how she’s going to spend “the days between now and happy.” She finishes up with “Tommy,” whose slumbering verses give way to gently keening choruses, a song of regret to close out an album full of them.

Warren is backed on The Sick Season by a tight and versatile group of friends including her longtime solo bandleader Jeremy Middleton (bass & backing vocals), Great Unknowns bandmate Avril Smith (guitar), and Megan Jane (drums), with producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin (Indigo Girls, Lucy Wainwright Roche) contributing guitars, keys, horns and accordion where needed. The result is a recording where everyone sounds comfortable and in the groove every second of the way.

It’s impossible to delve into The Sick Season without considering Warren’s timing. In the midst of a pandemic that’s left much of the planet’s population sick of sitting on our couches longing for human connection, The Sick Season speaks eloquently to these concerns in a voice that’s equal parts compassion and grit.

Finally, can we speak freely for a minute about courage? The courage to ask for help when you need it, the courage to speak honestly about the lowest moments of your life, the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other and find a way to make something good out of so much bad. There are plenty of reasons to love The Sick Season—those big jangly guitars, those brilliant lyrics, and the powerful emotions Becky Warren’s songs draw out. But the biggest reason I love it is because it’s so damned brave.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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