SALLIE FORD is sick when I call her. She's got a frog in her throat and she apologizes for her voice doing weird things. Which seems strange, because she has a voice people would punch babies for. It's unusual, sure—the Mercury has likened it to Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl in 1980's Popeye—but it hums with power, evoking Wanda Jackson's hiccup, a whole host of jazz and blues greats, and a quality so wholly her own that it can't be put into a tidy little box, which suits the young Portlander just fine.
On Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside's excellent new album Untamed Beast, there's a rockin' number called "Rockability," with driving guitars and big band swing-swing drums and Ford singing, "Can't wait to see the day when all the genres melt away/I'm so sick of being in the box, won't you unlock me." Then she unleashes a series of "hoo-hoo" battle cries that cement her aspirations to kick away the olio of labels that swarm around the band. Ford says, "For a while, people in France labeled us as 'rockabilly,' which kinda got on my nerves. At this point, I've accepted it because I don't really think I knew a lot about [rockabilly]. It was just surprising. Maybe people just looked at what we look like...
"Generally we just favor [being called] rock 'n' roll," Ford continues. "But I can hear influences of all sorts of things, and we do that on purpose because we don't really want to be so specific anyway. If you're labeling yourself as only one thing, it gets boring."
Of the band's many descriptors, it's doubtful that the word "boring" has ever come up. The quartet (Tyler Tornfelt on upright bass, Ford Tennis on drums, and guitarist Jeffrey Munger) plays a brand of burning, sexy rock 'n' roll that used to make the teenyboppers scream their fool faces off; it's music that compels one to dance, as driving and fun as it is energetic and youthful. In other words, it's straight-up vintage rock 'n' roll—particularly in the case of the band's fantastic sophomore album Untamed Beast, which moves away from the jazz and roadhouse blues on 2011's Dirty Radio. Recorded at Portland's Jackpot! Recording Studio early last year with the help of two Nashville producers, Untamed Beast sees the band maturing into their aesthetic, with Ford's staccatoed cadence punctuating her more personally driven lyrics. "Theme-wise, I guess on the first record I was obsessed with Tom Waits... Untamed Beast is a little more from my point of view of being a woman in modern times," Ford say. "Sex and freedom and power."
Which begs the question: Is that Sallie on the cover of Untamed Beast under the horned skull, bare-breasted and holding an ice cream cone? "It's not me, but I feel like I should start saying it is," she says. It might as well be Ford, with her unabashed confidence—she's like the gal who dances with whoever she damn well pleases at the sock hop, and might just start a bar fight later, after she's had her way. Or the deceptively demure girl who makes prolonged eye contact across the soda shop—maybe with Untamed Beast's "Addicted" playing over the jukebox, where Ford belts out, "I'm addicted/I'm addicted to you, hoo." I tell her she should be the sassy spokesperson for Yoo-hoo, since she's so smitten. She laughs, "We talked about that. It's funny, the producer guys kept making jokes about that, so on the last day when we finished I bought a Yoo-hoo for them." If anyone could make the equivalent of a chocolate malted the new drink of rock 'n' roll, it's Ford.