With a sound anchored in the roots of Americana music — from cosmic country to R&B to greasy, roadhouse rock & roll — Nellen Dryden offers up a mix of past and present on her second album, Standstill.
It's a sound that began taking shape in New York City, where Dryden recorded her debut, Little Stray Heart, in 2016. That album found the songwriter 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. Standstill also found her working closely with Jules Belmont, an electric guitarist and pedal steel player whose approach to music was shaped by world music, Ry Cooder, and other diverse sources. 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.
Now based in Nashville, Dryden deepens and diversifies her songwriting with her 2019 release, Standstill. It's a modern-minded album about the human condition, with songs that encourage her audience to love, listen, and live with compassion. If Little Stray Heart was her introspective debut, full of songs inspired by personal experience, then Stand Still is her universally-minded follow-up, with lyrics focused not only upon the songwriter herself, but upon the world around her.
There are references to racial inequality (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"). Set to a soundtrack of grooves, guitars, and Stax-worthy keyboards, Stand Still 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. Stand Still 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 and right-hand man once again. Also returning to the fold was producer Josh Hahn, who'd previously overseen the sessions for Little Stray Heart. Rounding out the studio crew were drummer Jon Truman, bassist Jonathan Beam, keyboardist Jimmy Matt Rowland, and acoustic guitarist 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 live on an RCA analog console from the 1950s, with Dryden nailing her vocals alongside her bandmates' instrumental contributions. The old-school approach suited her songs well. Warm, gritty, and clutter-free, Stand Still nods to the way records used to sound, long before this kind of music was ever called "Americana."
Influenced by Lucinda Williams' phrasing, Erykah Badu's rhythmic emphasis, Bonnie Raitt's bluesy belt, and Patti Griffin's melodies, Nellen Dryden hits a high-water mark with Standstill.
Bio by: Andrew Leahy
Photos: Sarah Gallina