[24 July 2006]
There’s an early scene in the comedy Arthur where Dudley Moore, playing the lovable drunk, is sitting across from a hooker in a posh restaurant. “My mother died when I was six,” she says, before revealing that her father raped her when she was 12. “So, you had six relatively good years,” he replies before knocking back another shot. It’s somewhat funny because it’s fiction. But when reality is that you’ve been down several hard roads early on, it’s terribly sad. For her part, Janiva Magness lost her parents to suicide, ended up in a vicious circle of foster homes, and dealt with her own demons.
Now, more than two decades after those trials and hells, Magness is doing quite well, thank you very much. And with this new album, Magness manages to bring out the best of her soulful, bluesy style that never goes over the top and is extremely old-school. Magness seems like she has the pipes that could leave you agog, but with a song like “I’m Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’)”, Magness keeps things to a great but even keel, letting loose but not going overboard. Complete with horns and keyboards, Magness digs deep for this groovy, Motown, Aretha-like vibe that brings to mind someone like Bettye LaVette more than Bonnie Raitt. From there, Magness goes down a dusty, blues road for the Willie Dixon nugget “Workin’ on Me Baby”, with some great call and response moments. The tune, featuring co-producer and guitarist Colin Linden (Black & the Rodeo Kings) on backing vocals, is slow but steady, chugging along with a subtle change in the guitar nearly a minute in.
Magness excels when left to her own devices, and has one hell of a voice that sells you instantly and wins you over. This is particularly true on “You Were Never Mine”, another timeless soul tune that glides along as effortlessly as Magness delivers it. You might expect to hear a slow-building brass section or a number of horns as she belts out the chorus, but she downplays it for greater effect. Joss Stone, eat your heart out, honey! While Stone certainly has the chops, she doesn’t have the years that make it sound like she’s lived a song like this, something Magness is capable of doing so damn easily it’s not remotely funny. This style is returned to with the sultry, sexy and sleek “Do I Move You”, which would be hard not to be moved by. “I Can’t Stop Cryin’” lightens the mood somewhat, with the singer offering up the tune in a playful, Latin-like sway kind of way. It’s just the right time to change the pace before she gets back to basics with another roots-meets-blues format on “Don’t Let Your Memories”. Here, Magness brings to mind a cross between Joplin and Raitt, a certain rasp in her voice, but nothing that seems to drag the song down.
Perhaps the strength of the album is the consistency of the songs offered up, with Magness more than content to stay in the old-school soul feeling of Motown, particularly on the feel-good “I Want You to Have Everything” that brings to mind bands like the Shirelles or the late Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party”. However, as the record reaches its homestretch, Magness doesn’t quite shine as much with a rather ordinary “I Give Up” that sounds like she’s given up just a tad. The horns are what make this song work, while she pours through the lines as if she was in some smoky jazz lounge. But she brings the album to a crawl with a rather hokey barroom/saloon ditty entitled “Stealin’ Sugar”, a track that is only missing Hop Sing and perhaps Miss Kitty. Fortunately, she finds more of that delectable mojo with “A Man Size Job”, ending the record on a very high note. Magness will hopefully be one of those who finally get their just rewards for an album that is hard to take out of the disc player.
Janiva Magness - You Were Never Mine [Live on the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour]