[27 March 2011]
Few things in life are as reliable as a Marcia Ball performance. For more than four decades, the Louisiana-by-way-of-Texas musician has magnificently played piano and sang her way through the blues with incredible amounts of heart and soul. Ball is the real deal: equal parts New Orleans, boogie woogie, swamp music, and Texas soul all wrapped up into one package. Her new album shows that she’s also an incredible songwriter.
Roadside Attractions marks the first time Ball has either written or co-written every cut on an album. The high quality and variety of songs presented here reveal Ball’s gifted ability to create catchy licks and her talents as a first–rate observer of life. There are party songs mixed with ones that make you think, danceable beats and reflective rhythms. The tracks flow into each other to create a mighty musical force. While every song is good, the album as a whole is greater than a sum of its parts.
Ball’s use of Cajun and Delta musical styles evoke the sense of being part of a watery biosphere, especially in terms of her lively right hand prancing on the piano keys, but perhaps a better metaphor for her music would be the one she uses as her title song. The tune “Roadside Attraction” cleverly describes being on the road home, suffering no distractions, on the way back to the one she loves. “I’ve seen the Corn Palace, the fair in Dallas / The drive through the Redwood tree, a giant Strawberry / That tower in Paree and a two-ton ball of string…. / But I’m coming home just as fast as I can,” she sings with a pulsating voice while plunking keys energetically; she progresses with increased excitement, nearing her destination.
Going home; Ball sings about her roots on several songs. On “Between Here and Kingdom Come”, she poignantly reminiscences about her old homestead. The song may or may not be autobiographically accurate, but her longing for the innocence of the past rings true. Ball’s voice aches with pleasure, the kind one gets when yearning for a better time and a better self. She continues in this vein later on “This Used to Be Paradise”, where she sings about her Cajun fisherman grandfather and the encroachment of the oil companies on his fishing grounds. Paradise was a place where the fish used to jump in your boat. Now the wildlife is barely hanging on.
There may be something preachy in Ball’s ballads, but her piano playing always keeps things moving and her voice ever-infectiously appealing. She knows how to tell a story with music. And that’s not all. When she turns up the tempo, she makes one forget what they were thinking about, allowing them to just have a good time. The western swing beat of “Sugar Boogie” moves at a tempo fast enough to leave listeners tapping their feet. And she can get low down in the Texas blues. She compellingly moans about the stubbornness of her man on “Mule Headed Man”—good thing he knows how to make love to her.
After all these years, Ball continues to crank out top-notch blues. This time, she does not have to cover tunes by any of the old past masters but one — herself.