[28 June 2010]
Janiva Magness has all the right ingredients for blues dominance: a solid band, a scratchy, soulful voice, a solid set of tunes. But there is something lacking, an intangible that is no less crucial than any of these, and might be the most elusive ingredient of all. Call it heart, call it authenticity or pain or angst or whatever you like, but without it, this well-performed set comes off as merely competent rather than compelling. Given the strictures of the blues as a genre, competence alone is damning indeed.
There are exceptions to this, and they tend to be the slower songs. The ironically-titled “I’m Feeling Good” is a reflective, bittersweet number with vocals that sound torn from the gut, underpinned with a sultry bassline and swampy keyboards. This is immediately followed by “Weeds Like Us”, with a meandering, reverb-y guitar accompaniment that would not sound out of place on Black Keys album, and some genuinely moving lyrics. “Well I let you go, are you going still? / You pick up speed as you roll downhil,” Magness mournfully intones. “Sometimes men don’t leave a will / Weeds like us, so hard to kill.”
In such songs, as in the acoustic “Save Me” and the steamily furious “Homewrecker”, Magness allows the vulnerability in her voice to flicker through: “Nobody can wreck a home better than you can / I should know, ‘cause I’m a homeless woman.” Such naked angst is far more effective than the tough-gal sass that she adopts elsewhere.
Alas, tough-gal sass is very much in evidence, in such tunes as “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love”, “I Want to Do Everything For You”, “Your Love Made a U Turn” and the title track. Despite the best efforts of the musicians (a wide-ranging group that includes Jeff Turmes, Dave Darling and Zach Zunis on guitars, with Darling, Ted Andreadis and Arlan Schierbaum on keyboards), these songs carry a perfunctory blues-by-the-numbers feel, evidenced by tired lines about “runnin’ around with every girl in town” and “when you touch me I just lose control”, not to mention endless permutations of the he-done-me-wrong trope. There’s a thin line between classic blues concerns and clichéd expression, and these songs don’t always stay on the right side of the divide.
A surprising cover of Earl Randle’s “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” benefits from scratchy guitar and a structure that deviates from standard blues tropes, but this song is the exception. The prevailing repetitiveness is reinforced by the consistency of the songs’ structures; out of 12 songs, only two of them are longer than four minutes (by a few seconds) and just one is shorter than three. There are no extended blues jams here, no story-songs, little of the range that the genre provides. As noted, there are slow songs and uptempo songs, but that’s about as much variety as one gets. If versatility is one of Magness’ strengths, it’s impossible to hear on this album. It’s a shame, because—as noted above—the pieces are all here. At the moment, though, pieces are what they remain.