Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
The ominous guitar intro that opens Aubrie Sellers' album — 45 seconds of tense, reverberating chord changes that move with exaggerated sluggishness — primes listeners for a brutish display of force. Maybe something along the lines of the sinewy groove that soon follows; that or a big-screen shootout. Certainly not any display as refined as Sellers' singing. She opens the first verse from "Light Of Day" with her delicately bruised twang and cursive phrasing archly elongating and wilting notes, tying her lines together with soft, tendrily flourishes.
Sellers spends the better part of New City Blues toying with these sorts of aesthetic tensions, pitting the volatility of thrashy drums and serrated guitar vamps against the keen mastery of emotion in her vocal performances. It often feels like the 24-year-old is stirring the pot, troubling the surface — and, in the process, slyly deepening the impact of her original songs. From many angles, Sellers confronts the compulsion to distort lived realities into half-truths; to obsessively curate one's image and convince others that you're sailing through life, having a great time and getting everything you want.
Especially striking is the way she flips the gendered script that casts a woman's feelings as spasmodic and untrustworthy. Sellers is unafraid to venture out to end-of-your-rope extremes in "Living Is Killing Me," "Sit Here And Cry" and "Just To Be With You," but the self-awareness of her songwriting and the lilting subtleties of her singing make her accounts of losing control feel like deliberate, calibrated catharsis. Whether her protagonist is choosing to stick it out with a distracted beau ("Humming Song") or part with a lover for whom she still has lingering feelings ("Loveless Rolling Stone"), Sellers leaves no question that the characters she's playing know full well what they're doing.
In press materials, Sellers calls her sound "garage country." Embracing an unfamiliar descriptor was a savvy move on her part — perhaps an attempt to ensure that her music is heard on its own terms and not as any sort of hand-me-down from her accomplished family. Most published pieces on her tend to lead with the fact that her mom is Lee Ann Womack, one of the finest country singers of the last 20 years; her dad is hit-writer Jason Sellers and her stepdad is Miranda Lambert producer Frank Liddell, who also produced this 14-song set. Sure, it matters that Aubrie Sellers has benefited from insider influences and opportunities. She's joined her mom on stage at shows and on a Ralph Stanley track, sung on albums by Lambert and another of Liddell's most successful acts, David Nail, and generally absorbed a respect for singular stylists and singer-songwriters, from down-home to high-concept ends of the spectrum. But while Sellers' own album has fleeting echoes of Womack's soulfulness and Lambert's crash-and-bash backing, it's plainly the work of an artist who's determined to construct a riveting identity for herself.