9 songs – 42 minutes
Some people just have a little too much talent and, on the evidence of The Light In Me, Austin-native Jackie Venson certainly appears to be one of them. A singer, a songwriter, a guitarist and a band-leader, Venson also has that intangible magic that makes her music sound effortless even when it is obvious that a lot of work has gone into it.
Opening with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, the title track of Venson’s first album has hints of Tracy Chapman or perhaps Joni Mitchell in the sparseness of the arrangement and the distinctive vocal melody. Venson has a soft, airy voice, blessed with a wide range and a sharp intelligence. The dreamy track also fits in with the deliberately retro, Vaseline-tinted cover photograph of Venson laughing at something off-camera, lying on her back in a sun-soaked patch of grass, resting her head on an old-fashioned portable radio/tape player.
Anyone who labours under the misapprehension that Venson is a delicate chanteuse however will be in for a shock when the “The Light In Me” is followed by the raucous blues guitar intro to “What I Need”. A song of dramatic variety, the quieter verse leads to the near-reggae of the chorus before building up again to more over-driven guitar and a solo that sounds like an angry Gary Clark Jr.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music, where she majored in composition and studio production, Venson has put her learning to good use on The Light In Me, producing a soul/pop/R&B album of wide-ranging influences but with a strong blues element to many of the songs. Particularly impressive is how Venson often combines myriad influences in the same song, producing something very modern and very novel. “Now”, for example, features rap and pop but with tasteful acoustic guitar fills weaving in between the voices as well as some funky Carol King-esque piano from Eddy Hobizal (who also produced the album).
Venson’s backing band is adroit at following her compositional muse, providing superb understated support that highlights the song, rather than the player. In addition to Hobzial on keys, The Light In Me features the rhythm section of Gilbert Ayala (drums) and Alan Uribe (bass), percussionist Carolyn Trowbridge and Stephen Carlos Kirk on saxophone. Venson herself plays the various guitar parts.
Uribe’s deep, rumbling bass is key to one of the highlights of the album, the foot-tapping “Always Free”, with Hobizal’s keys adding a cool 1970s feel. And it’s probably fair to say that this decade also has a discernable impact on the album, especially on songs like “The Love I Give” and the R&B of “Beauty Of Your Love”.
It’s also probably fair to say that the only “pure” blues song on the album is the nine-minute long “I Don’t Cry”, which closes the CD. Featuring Kirk’s superbly fluid sax, the track also lets Venson give free rein to her electric guitar. But The Light In Me is not a “pure” blues album. Rather, it is a very impressive gumbo of soul/pop/R&B/rock with a heavy dose of blues. As a debut album, it lays down a serious marker and it will be fascinating to follow this artist’s development and evolution.