If the Adeles and Jessie Wares of the world sit squarely in the neo-soul category, pleasing broad demographics of listeners with their smooth and sultry vocal tones, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside's musical time traveling does something entirely different. The band is straight-up rock n' roll: traditional slapback-reverb guitar licks bolstered by garage-rock percussion. The result is rockabilly crossbred with post-punk, as if Carl Perkins and Jay Reatard teamed up in a sweaty Portland dive bar.
Untamed Beast, the band's second full-length album, contains almost no vocal harmonies, so that each track showcases Ford's voice amid few distractions. And what a voice it is: rich, raw, and totally indifferent to formal conventions set by neo-soul sisters and indie-rock frontwomen such as Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner. That's not to say Ford lacks control; in fact, each line she sings is taut, a live wire rippling with potential energy. Her voice is like mid-career Wanda Jackson with a bit of whiplash: She taps into a similar raspy vibrato while often punctuating lines with an extra syllable or even a grunt. Mellower tracks, such as “Paris” and “Roll Around,” give Ford a chance to slow down and slide upward in her register, proving that she can do sweet almost as well as she does salty.
Lyrically, the album explores Ford's particular brand of femininity, one that accommodates both brazen programmatic statements (“I can sweat, I can yell, I can raise some hell” on “Bad Boys”) and a charming openness about her own sentimental tendencies (pining for an ex-lover “in the most romantic city in the world” on “Paris”). There's something cheekily retrograde in the innuendo of “Do Me Right,” in which she draws a distinction between her own tastes and those of other women. Surely there's more to lyrics like “Some girls they like a piece of toast/Some girls they like entire roasts/I like it somewhere in between/I think you know what I mean” than culinary preferences, yet Ford keeps the metaphor provocatively buttoned-up.
On album-closer “Roll Around,” however, Ford cuts through any pretense of modesty, proclaiming the 21st-century woman's right to flip the bird at traditional courtship norms. After stating that she doesn't want a ring, a kid, or a promise, she asserts, “I just wanna roll around in bed with you/Whether that's romantic, well that's your point of view.” When a potential mate disrespects her on “Lip Boy,” he gets what's coming. Prefaced by an echo-heavy, almost galloping guitar riff that cascades down the scale, Ford essentially spits in his face: “When you give me lip means you give me shit.” Despite her vitriol, though, Ford isn't too shy to admit she's turned on—“a little keen.” The song incorporates two sentiments, rage and arousal, that might sound contradictory in less capable hands.
Much of the album emphasizes Ford's self-consciousness as a rock musician in an era when the field remains populated largely by men. If the band's first album, Dirty Radio, established Ford's chops as a frontwoman, she only ratchets up the rock factor on Untamed Beast. The penultimate track, “Rockability,” serves as a manifesto for the albums: She is, we're assured, “no rockabilly queen,” and she yearns for “the day when all the genres melt away.” It's Ford's sheer ballsiness—her eccentric vocals, her no-frills production, and her spitfire lyrics—that distinguishes her from male rockers and female soul-stresses alike. In the company of Adele et al., that's no small feat.