If you’ve heard Janiva Magness before, you probably remember that first moment of realization that this is a singer of raw power, emotional complexity, and technical ability beyond that of most anybody working in music today. Yeah, that sounds like hyperbole, but if you’ve heard her, you know. The woman can sing the blues, or, as it turns out, just about anything she feels like singing.
A word about genre seems necessary. The blues is a musical form, and it’s a musical style. The style is always part of the form, but the form isn’t always there with the style. Magness has sung her share of traditional 12-bar blues and other R&B forms throughout her career, and she has brought her impressive virtuosity to bear on songs associated with the greats of those genres, such as Willie Dixon, Ann Peebles, Nina Simone, and Little Milton. But, she’s also covered material by the likes of Annie Lennox, Nick Lowe, and Julie Miller, none of which sounded so bluesy until Magness put her pipes to them.
Janiva Magness's Stronger For It
Stronger For It contains three new songs written by Magness and her producer/guitarist Dave Darling, two written by blues or soul masters (Ike Turner and Gladys Knight), and seven from the songbooks of contemporary rock or alternative country performers. If you know material such as “I Thought I Knew You” by Matthew Sweet or “I’m Alive” by Shelby Lynne, you may not recognize the way Magness slips them so comfortably into a blues feel without abandoning their pop or country forms.
Magness has been content to express herself exclusively through the words of others throughout her career, but for this new record, she had some things to say which could only come straight from her pen. “There It Is” is the album opener, and the song which would clearly be pulled as the first single if there was a chance to make money selling blues singles in 2012. A feisty and vibrant groove underlies an infectious chorus sung by two male singers in response to Magness’ angry, surprised, and invigorating declarations. “I never thought I’d want to hurt a man so bad, but baby, there it is” are the first words out of her mouth, and it’s clear the cryptic liner notes about a “most interesting and challenging time in my life” probably reference a personal romantic dissolution.
Whistlin' In The Dark
Her other two original songs, “I Won’t Cry” and “Whistlin’ In the Dark” are not nearly as angry nor quite as catchy, but they aren’t anything to ignore, either. The latter is a pseudo-Memphis soul ballad, with a cool heavy reverbed guitar solo from Darling, and Magness given plenty of space to show off her perfect pitch and elegantly-shaped phrasing. The former is a quiet, intimate number which showcases the warmth of the band and the determination of Magness to survive whatever punches life might throw at her.
Magness has covered Ike Turner before, but her version of the Ike & Tina nugget “You Got What You Wanted” is a particular standout here. As on so many cuts on the album, the rhythm section of bassist Gary Davenport and drummer Matt Tecu provide an unconventional and striking approach to the opening of the song, giving Magness a chance to start off with a less aggressive sexual approach than Tina Turner gave it, before leading to an impassioned cry of “you got what you wanted and now you don’t know what you got.” On “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong,” a classic from Gladys Knight and the Pips, Magness captures the feel and the spirit of the original without devolving into a karaoke exercise. If you think that’s easy, just try it.
Make It Rain
Turning to the songwriters most blues fans won’t be familiar with, Magness does a graceful version of Tom Waits' “Make It Rain,” a song filled with blues and gospel imagery and sung here with a soulful yearning which Waits only implied. Magness devastates with lyrics like “without his love, without his kiss/hell can’t burn me any more than this/I’m burning up in all this pain/you’ve got to open up the heavens and make it rain.” Shelby Lynne’s “I’m Alive” was a little bluesy in its countrified original state, but Magness alternates between a quiet ache (with particularly effective tom-tom and tambourine beats from Tecu) and a rich, loud aggression to make it sound like it belongs in her songbook.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a rock band with jazz and blues influences, and their “Ragged Company” is a highlight in the hands of Magness and her band here. With only simple guitar chords and a quiet shaker for percussion, Magness hugs the microphone and gets to the heart of the loneliness in the song before climbing higher and higher along a gospel-drenched melody to see if she can find an answer. “Thought I Knew You” was a power pop ballad from rocker Matthew Sweet, but Magness emphasizes the spitefulness in the lyrics and turns it into a Southern soul workout not far removed from the recent efforts of Bettye LaVette.
The first nine songs on the album are focused on loss of love, and the pain of being by yourself. The last three offer a way out. The path here seems specifically spiritual, but not focused exclusively on religion so much as on the ways one can take control of the path being walked. The pure country folk of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Dirty Water” is a quiet, yet intense statement of newfound purpose and a rejection of old pain.
Paul Thorn’s “Things Left Undone” offers forgiveness and a plan to accomplish something new. And Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Whoop and Holler,” while connected to the experience of baptism, is a universal expression of joyous abandon and ecstatic pleasure. Not a bad way to end an album which began with the desire to get revenge.
Steve's Bottom Line
Janiva Magness could sing just about anything you could name and it would be a pleasure to hear. But the care in which she wrote or chose material for this new album makes Stronger For It one of the most exciting records to appear so far this year. (Alligator Records, released March 13, 2012)
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