Shemekia Copeland has been around for a few years now, recording a string of blues album following her 1998 debut Turn the Heat Up!. Copeland possesses a husky, expressive voice that compensates with expressiveness for what it lacks in power. Unfortunately, her latest offering, 33 1/3, fails to capitalize on her talents, instead offering a fairly safe set of tunes that ultimately proves to be forgettable.
Album opener “Lemon Pie” is a good example of what goes wrong. A bouncy, uptempo beat isn’t enough to overcome weak lyrics about nameless politicians—”I know you know his name”, Copeland prods us, unconvincingly—while scattered shots at mean bosses and high prices just fall flat. Populism is all well and good, and the blues is certainly a populist art form, but the targets attacked here are just too vague to be meaningful.
The same is true for “Somebody Else’s Jesus”, a song that rails against hypocritical televangelists, but only in the most obvious way imaginable, managing to make even this ripe material into something dull rather than enraging. To be sure, the song is lively enough, with a gospel-ish choir on the chorus, but this is a lost opportunity at best. When U2’s Bono spit out a line on 1990’s Rattle and Hum—”The God I believe in ain’t short of cash, mister”—he managed to pack more outrage into that one sentiment than Copeland can dredge up in a whole song.
She does better when the material is more personal. “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” is a powerful snapshot of an abusive relationship, in which the singer’s hushed vocals and the restrained backing arrangement serve to support the song without spilling into melodrama. “Hangin’ Up” is another downtempo number that makes good use of her voice’s inherent vulnerability, while “Mississippi Mud” is a danceable number enlivened by some tasty, twangy guitar licks.
Speaking of which, Copeland is ably supported here by a solid set of musicians who adhere to the basic blues template—guitar, bass, drums—with occasional horn contributions. The guitar work is especially noticeable on “One More Time”, a deep blues number that also features some nice harmonica work.
Sadly, a number of songs on the album fail to ignite. Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go”, from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is poorly suited to Copeland’s smooth vocals. Maybe it’s just that Williams’ falling-off-the-barstool version is definitive, but this fine tune is probably the weakest on the record. Similarly, “I’ll Sing the Blues” is haunted by any number of stronger versions, notably the one by Etta James. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare singers, but when cover versions are concerned, it’s difficult not to.
33 1/3 isn’t a bad album. It just isn’t a transcendent one, either. Given Copeland’s impressive gifts, the skill of her band and the material on hand, it could have been a jaw-dropper, but there is a strange restraint to the performances here. It is undeniably competent, and no doubt will satisfy existing fans, but this isn’t the album that is going to win over a lot of new converts.