Blue Elan Records – 2018
12 tracks; 45 minutes
After a couple of albums which took a step away from her blues and Rn’B roots, Janiva Magness returned to more familiar territory on last year’s EP Blue Again and her latest album continues in that direction, albeit with some elements of country to keep the mix fresh. Janiva has again worked with producer Dave Darling with whom she has made several albums now. Indeed, Dave had a hand in most of the songs here, writing four with Janiva, four with Lauren Bliss and Andrew Lowden, one with Colin Devlin and one with Gary and Natasha Pinto; one solo composition by Dave and a cover of a Paul Thorn song complete the material. The band is Dave on guitar, Arlan Schierbaum on keys, Doug Livingston on pedal steel and dobro, Phil Parlapiano on piano, Davey Farragher on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums; Darrell Leonard, Joe Sublett and Alfredo Ballesteros add horns to a few tracks and there are lots of backing vocalists: Sugaray Rayford, Gary Pinto, Natasha Pinto, Kudisan Kai, Thrones, Aurelia, Dave and Brie Darling. Guests include Charlie Musselwhite (harp), Rusty Young (pedal steel), Cedric Burnside (guitar), Courtney Hartman (guitar/banjo), Delbert McClinton and Bryan Stephens (vocals).
The ‘choir’ is well in evidence on the opener, Janiva on great form vocally on a mid-paced tune with discreet horns adding to a full production. Lyrically we are in ‘no way back from a break-up’ territory, Janiva resigned to her destiny – “Back To Blue”. Charlie Musselwhite adds his distinctive harp to the aggressive “Hammer” in which Janiva sings of the struggle to “keep swinging the hammer every single day”. Rusty Young’s pedal steel adds country rock style to “On And On”, a surefire winner in the way its chorus ends up in your head for hours afterwards – a real earworm! Janiva provides an appropriately moody vocal on Dave’s “Tell Me”, a song that acts as a call to arms in times of prejudice and fear. Janiva’s title tune continues in that vein with the opening lines “If love is an army, sadness the enemy, you know that I will fight for you”. A duet with NYC singer (and fellow Blue Elan artist) Bryan Stephens, this ballad is a great showcase for Janiva.
“Down Below” adds Courtney Hartman’s banjo to a Bliss/Lowden/Darling song with gospel influences in the lyrics and choral vocals but an Americana feel to the music. Janiva’s “What’s That Say About You?” celebrates selflessness as hard-working folk lend a hand to those less fortunate than themselves in a great piece of Rn’B that could have been recorded by any number of Memphis artists ‘back in the day’ – another standout track. Paul Thorn’s “What I Could Do” is a lovely ballad sung in heartfelt manner by Janiva and Delbert before the Pinto’s “Home” which features Cedric Burnside, better known as an award-winning drummer but here on guitar, the tune having something of the North Hill Country style that we associate with Cedric, a stripped back drum sound, Janiva singing with the choir and an uncredited male vocalist (perhaps writer Gary Pinto?).
The album concludes with a trio of Bliss/Lowden/Darling songs: “Love To A Gunfight” is another song that fits well with the unifying theme of ‘love conquers all’ that permeates the album; pedal steel features here and on the ballad “When It Rains”, giving a country feel to both songs; Janiva is accompanied just by gospel-infused piano on album closer “Some Kind Of Love” and we are again reminded just how well her voice works on this kind of material, the song also containing some memorable lines: “I’m reaching out for better days, like a desert praying for rain. It’s gonna take some kind of love to cure all this pain”.
In summary this is an outstanding album with several great songs, likely to figure in ‘Best Of’ lists at the end of the year. The band is terrific throughout and the guest stars all add distinctive elements to the mix, making this a disc to recommend to Blues Blast readers.