[21 August 2014]
Ruthie Foster’s blues credentials are well established. Her last two releases, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster and Let It Burn, received Grammy nominations for Best Blues Album. So it’s unclear why Foster feels compelled to begin her latest disc with a chunky little ditty called “Singing the Blues” that announces while she can sing any style of music, she’s a blues artist at heart. Hell, she doesn’t have to say this. It’s clear by her voice and intonations. Foster could be covering the folk songs of pampas, and one would still know that’s a blues singer! Like Bobby Blue Bland, whom she praises in this song, her vocals never get old or stale.
But despite the inclusion of several self-penned blues numbers, like the one just mentioned, she records some other styles here and gives them a blues vibe. This is probably due to the fact that Foster let the non-blues artist and bass player, Meshell Ndegeocello, be in charge of the album’s production. Ndegeocello tends to work in more eclectic, contemporary styles. While she lets Foster get down and dirty with the blues, notably on tracks such as “Let Me Know”, which features guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, and the Staples Singers’ chestnut “The Ghetto”, Ndegeocello also lets Foster romp around a bit, especially on the tasty Eugene McDaniels’ “Outlaw” that just sizzles with sexuality. And sometimes, as with Foster’s originals “Learning to Fly” and “Complicated Love”, it seems as if the singer songwriter could be Nanci Griffith or Mary Chapin Carpenter.
There are also gospel tinged tunes here, which reveal Foster’s church roots. As the title of her original “Believe” suggests, Foster finds faith despite life’s sorrows. Like water to a thirsty person, Foster sings, prayer is essential to survival. Ndegeocello gives the tune a contemporary vibe, ably aided by guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Ivan Edwards and keyboardist Jebin Bruni who add a sophisticated rhythm that made its concerns current, as contrasted with the chain rattling evoked by tambourines on “Brand New Day”. They may share the theme of heavenly promise, but that come at it from opposite directions.
While Foster’s powerful vocals have always been evident, Ndegeocello’s production forces her to stretch by having Foster restrain herself on a number of the songs. Even on Foster’s rendition of blues artist Willie King’s clarion call for justice, “Second Coming”, that invokes the spirit of both abolitionist John Brown and Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ndegeocello checks Foster from crying out and lets the lyrics carry the weight of the song.
“Negative thoughts don’t control my fate,” Foster sweetly sings on “It Might Not Be Right”, and this type of infectious inspiration characterizes the album as a whole. Foster remains positive in the face of what might be personally or socially hateful, but she never expresses surrender except maybe to a higher power that she might call love. This is excellent music to listen to when feeling down.
They say that misery loves company, which is why blues music remains so popular. With wars in the Gaza and Ukraine, newspapers and TV full of crime, and the endless internet barrage that makes one question one’s purpose and self-worth, Foster provides an antidote. While she may express this simply by saying just “believe”, the real truth can be found in Foster’s resolute voice that say more than just what words can convey. That’s the real Promise of a Brand New Day.