Sallie Ford made an impression with 2011's jazzy jump-blues debut, Dirty Radio, tapping into the sultry vocal style of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. On this year's follow-up, Untamed Beast, Ford and her band the Sound Outside go further afield. The brash, appropriately titled album bristles and crackles where the last one sashayed. Some dub it rockabilly, although the blend of sugar and spice is more like '60s garage meets girl group pop.
"Is that not what I was doing?" the plucky Ford quips from her Portland, Ore., home. "I wrote my first songs at 18 or 19 and the second record came out four to five years later. I just naturally grew into what I liked and what I wanted to do. In a way I went back to my roots, listening to more rock 'n roll and punk."
While the reverb-laden strut of "They Told Me" does suggest rockabilly, the shoulder-shimmying snarl at the song's core radiates enough intensity to redline a Geiger counter.
A couple tracks later, "Bad Boys" offers up a surf-inflected intro as she affects her best James Dean over a seductive walking hook that's one part Bo Diddley, two parts Duane Eddy. "I can fuck, I can drink and I don't care what you think," she intones, before delivering the coup de grace. "You can say I'm just a girl, but I've had a lady or two, and she'd prefer me to you."
Ford grew up in Asheville, N.C., with a musical family who would sing together at night, an old Southern tradition. She studied classical violin as a kid, but ditched music for a while before discovering guitar in her late teens. She left home for Portland where after some growing pains, she assimilated and found herself a band.
She complains that people see her as a nostalgia act and blames her preference for cat-eye glasses, though she cracks under interrogation. Yes, on "Roll Around," she does profess "I just want to live in the '50s," and on Dirty Radio's opening track, "I Swear," she complains, "When I turn on the radio it all sounds the same ... what is this robot-sounding bullshit?"
Ford laughs a little ruefully. "Sometimes I reach for things to write about that aren't just 'oh baby you broke my heart' kind of things ... People think I want to make these bold statements, but really I'm just, 'How can I write a song that's not already boring lyrically?'"
She's certainly not afraid to push boundaries. The cover features a bare-breasted women with an animal skull over her head, a nice visual cipher for the Untamed Beast. It's the kind of thing that's gotten everyone from Roxy Music to Spinal Tap in trouble.
"Our record label wasn't really wanting to do that," she says of the label's desire for something less provocative. "They thought we could sell some more records at Target or something. I don't think anyone who would've heard of me would even buy a record in Target."
And then there are songs like the salacious "Do Me Right," in which she declares "I like a certain sweet that only you can give to me ... a salty snack that fits perfectly in my sack."
"Those lyrics make people listen up," says Ford. "And I'd much rather people pay attention to what I'm saying."