Janiva Magness’s previous Alligator release, 2010’s Devil Is An Angel Too, suffered from what I call lack-of-pain syndrome: the musicianship was tight, the vocals were competent, but there was an overall lack of heart. Stronger For It is Magness’s third release on Alligator, and by far her best; her liner notes hint at various personal hardships, and while I certainly don’t wish her ill, the fact is that this set of tunes is a good deal more angsty and sorrowful—and powerful—than the last.
“There It Is” kicks off the album with a twangy guitar riff and deceptively laid-back rhythm, but when Magness starts singing, the proceedings become altogether more compelling. With her voice betraying shades of Bettye LaVette in its nuanced phrasing, Magness relates a tale of a woman driven to fantasies of murder. Dark? You bet.
There’s plenty more where that came from, too. “I Won’t Cry” is a slow simmer of a song, while a powerful version of Tom Waits’ “Make It Rain” is propelled along by pounding rhythms. After this opening trifecta, the album touches on various standard topics: Ike Turner’s “You Got What You Wanted” is a classic tune of being hard done by, while “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong” suggests that the man isn’t always to blame. Magness is so confident, and her voice is in such good form, that she can even take on Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Dirty Water” and do it justice. No easy task, that.
Stronger For It represents a huge leap in the development of this talented singer. The world of the blues always has room for another expressive, powerful vocalist. Happily, Janiva Magness is exactly that.