Irma Thomas: The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration
While this compilation falls a little short of a full-scale golden anniversary party, it's probably the right celebration for right now.
It's a strange idea for a compilation. The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration ostensibly marks a half century since Irma Thomas had her first recording session, and that's certainly a noteworthy accomplishment. Oddly, though, the collection only includes material from her Rounder era, a span of about 25 years. There are three new cuts and three non-Rounder appearances, but it's still a bit like celebrating Mark McGwire's rookie season and forgetting that the Oakland A's ever existed. Fortunately, Thomas's Rounder output has been good enought that even missing some of Thomas's biggest hits, the record still stands up.
These recordings have the ring of maturity about them, and while that's too often a backhanded compliment, here it's simple recognition of an artist who was there in youth, was gone for a while, and returned with enough artistry to replace any fervor that might have slipped (and there's no indication that's the case). Thomas's career was sidetracked for a considerable amount of time after Hurricane Camille in 1969 (when she left New Orleans for a number of years), but once she got back to Big Easy singing, she was back.
Even the new songs hold up. Sometimes new-for-compilation cuts are just those that aren't good enough to stick on a proper album, but that isn't the case here. "Let It Be Me" provides the best example of the three. The cut could have been on an R&B record 45 years ago, and could have been a crossover hit. You could set a high school dance in a nostalgic movie to the track and not have anyone jump on the anachronism. Even so, it, in itself, isn't a performance of nostalgia. Thomas sings it like it matters, even while resisting any potential impulse to oversing. Both she and her band, the Professionals, know exactly how far too push the expression before pulling it back.
As for the catalog stuff, the compilation does a nice job of drawing from throughout her run with Rounder (starting with 1986's The New Rules) while still managing to highlight her most acclaimed albums, After the Rain (2006) and Simply Grand (2008). In doing so, we get a variety of lineups backing her, but there's nothing disjointed about the collection, a fact more noteworthy by the sequence's neglect of chronology. We also get a glimpse at the number of quality musicians with whom Thomas has recorded, including Allen Toussaint, Spooner Oldham (playing on a Dan Penn song), and Sonny Landreth.
The variety pays off with entertaining transitions. One of the most marked goes from a deep blues ("Another Man Done Gone") to dinner-party soul ("What Can I Do") to spare vocal pop ("I Count the Tears"). "Another Man Done Gone", a traditional song from the Grammy-winning After the Rain stands out as one of the top recordings on the disc. Irma gets a thicker sound of out her vocal, with a delivery style that Sharon Jones might have paid attention to at some point. The backing band plays it pretty straight -- it's old blues -- but mixes up the texture a little. Landreth's slide guitar grounds the song, but he's surrounded by Dirk Powell's fretless banjo and James Singleton's perfect-sounding arco bass work. There's nothing especially novel or striking here, but the lower register of the cut gives the song an atmosphere well-matched to Thomas's vocal, and Landreth's lead work confirms Thomas's hurt.
The compilation is by no means an endpoint to the music of Irma Thomas (nor is it intended to be), but it does give an effective overview of the latter half of her career, which hadn't been fully anthologized until now. While it's a little short of a full-scale golden anniversary party, it's probably the right celebration for right now.