Beth Hart has been to hell and back and thus far has avoided the one-way trip back again. After getting a lot of well-deserved ink for her 1999 album Screamin’ for My Supper, which included the hit “L.A. Song”, Hart sank into a drug addiction that stalled her career and nearly ended up stalling her permanently. But thankfully for the singer, she’s returned with a new album and a new sense of purpose. “The songs talk about getting well, and also about the darkness of being down and then the light of being back in the living again,” she says in the press kit. Judging by the opening tune, which sounds as if Macy Gray and Dido gave birth to a new child, “Lifts You Up” ambles along into a pretty and pretty solid rock/adult contemporary pop area. Coming off very strong and confident, Hart gives way to guitarist Kip Packard quite often throughout. Even a reggae moment or two is added to the mix. Just by the first few moments, you can tell she’ll make the most of this album.
The album is extremely self-reflective and cathartic for Hart, so some might not get into the album from the onset. However, the title track, a string-tinged blues pop framework, is as close to current soul as you can get, falling along the lines of Mary J. at the top of her game or Canadian Amanda Marshall. While sounding quite dark in some respects, there is always a bit of hope in the tune. However, it isn’t enough to bring “Bottle of Jesus” to full bloom. With the obvious lyrics talking about boozing it up and being a “junkyard dog”, Hart falls between rapping, singing, and talking through the lyrics too often. The soulful horn bridge picks things up, but only fleetingly. Thankfully, she gets far better results with the soulful, Joplin-cum-Etheridge “World Without You”. She nails the bridge with a lot of spark on this number!
The slower piano-based tracks are Hart’s greatest moments, particularly with the bluesy “Lay Your Hands On Me”. And no, it’s not a Bon Jovi cover, thank heavens! Hart definitely could be Norah Jones 2.0 on this tune’s early verses, but she begins belting out later on with confidence before hitting a couple of Elton John high notes. From there, she moves into a barroom blues-rock blueprint during “Broken & Ugly”, which could be mistaken for Canadian Idol judge and singer Sass Jordan (yes, we have Canadian Idol up here). She ends with a brief scat also, which is another highlight. But it’s the constant ebb and flow between hard rock and soul and blues that makes the record work. “Lifetime” is probably her biggest moment on the record, a piano-driven tune that is backed slightly by organ and keyboards. “Ain’t no way to live a lifetime / Ain’t no way to live at all”, she repeats through the somber but heartfelt tune. It’s the type of song that should be continued on for much longer than it is, with Hart wailing near the final few notes.
The homestretch of the record opens with “If Only God Knew”, a gospel-tinted ditty that brings to mind ‘60s soul via Motown. The only thing it’s missing is handclaps, the finger snaps, or the doo-wops. And it swings through the chorus, with Hart’s harmonies layered atop her main vocals without going over-the-top. More of Elton John can be discerned on “Monkey Back”, a funky little rock-pop piano tune that has the same feel of John’s early ‘70s classics. It even ventures into a bit of a rave-up during and prior to the fade out. But she returns to a slower softer melody on “Sky Full of Clover”, another uplifting tune about finding help in something or somebody else out there. At her most raspy, she gives some lines that will have hairs rising and spines tingling. She lets out a “Woo” at the end, and Hart wouldn’t be the only one emitting that word after this brilliant performance. “I’ll Stay with You” rounds out the record, one that Hart sees as a prayer in some respects. If that’s the case, let’s hope she’s got a rosary’s worth of tunes or albums in the future!
// Notes from the Road
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