Shirley Johnson’s blues is a bit of a curveball. There’s a certain happiness about it, a pervading sense of joy that entices you to dance. The title track of her latest effort, Blues Attack, sums up the approach. It’s a fever, a type of infection, that seeps into her system and gets her feet moving. This, in spite of her legion of songs that blast unfaithful lovers and slick talkers for their wayward shenanigans (“You’re Reckless”, “Just Like That”, “You Just Using Me”). What always works for Ms. Johnson is her distinctive voice: weathered, experienced, and emotive. It is her most valuable instrument, operating in conjunction with a band that’s trump tight and includes piano and organ work from Roosevelt Purifoy, Lovely “J.R.” Fuller, Jr. on bass, Luke Pytel’s left channel guitar, and Cordell Teague on drums.
The teamwork between vocalist and band also shines, whether they’re working over a Motown-style rhythm (“My Baby Played Me for a Fool”), belting out doo-wop (“634-5789”), jamming to James Brown-ish funk (“Take Your Foot Off My Back”), or dealing in traditional blues (“Let It Rain”). While lamenting the snakes of the world, Ms. Johnson isn’t afraid to testify to her own venom, like when she gets caught cheating in “You Shouldn’t Have Been There” and she points the finger back at her man for being at the wrong place at the right time. She’s also vulnerable enough to be hopeful (“I’m Going to Find Me a Lover”), admit her selfishness (“Selfish King of Gal”), and play the foolish mistress who has an affair with a family man (“Felt So Good”).
Nitpicks? Just a few. There’s an overriding sameness to the faster tracks, one which works from a consistency point of view but brings the album down a notch in terms of freshness. Besides that, I’m not so sure the world needs another version of the classic “Unchain My Heart”. Though enjoyable, the project sounds like an invitation to catch the live show in Chicago, Illinois, where Ms. Johnson regularly performs. That’s not a bad thing, but it is an indication that the stage show doesn’t completely translate to the album experience.