Most of us know singer Beth Hart from Don't Explain, her critically-acclaimed 2011 collaboration with guitarist Joe Bonamassa. The album is still riding high on the blues charts, Hart winning accolades for her ability to bring classic soul, blues, and R&B tunes into the contemporary realm with her strong vocals and interpretive abilities. Truth is, however, Hart was a musical prodigy who has been kicking around the fringes of the roots 'n' blues scene since 1993 or so, releasing a pair of major label albums with her Beth Hart Band in the late 1990s and finding an audience in Europe and Japan in the new century.
Bang Bang Boom Boom is Hart's eighth album overall, and her first since the career milestone that was Don't Explain brought her to the attention of the blues crowd. The singer worked with longtime Bonamassa musical foil Kevin Shirley in creating Bang Bang Boom Boom, Hart backed by a talented studio band that includes guitarist Randy Flowers, drummer Anton Fig, and keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum – the latter two also lending their talents to Don't Explain – as well as legendary percussionist Lenny Castro and, yes, even Bonamassa (adding his guitar to one track).
Beth Hart's Bang Bang Boom Boom
Bang Bang Boom Boom starts off dreadfully slow, "Baddest Blues" channeling Hart's 1920s-styled cabaret singer torch vocals, and not all that effectively, the song finally exploding into an instrumental fury from which only Schierbaum's piano emerges clearly. Overall, an inauspicious beginning that is only made worse by the cockeyed title track. While Hart's vocals on the song are intriguing, and some of the lyrics provocative, it sounds like we're in some dank German beer hall 100 years ago. The album is only partially redeemed by the brassy performance afforded "Better Man," Hart purring and howling her way through a blues blazer with heavy instrumentation and a swaggering vibe.
Much of the rest of Bang Bang Boom Boom follows a similar blueprint, displaying dazzling brilliance one moment and sinking into blasé mediocrity the next. Since I don't know how much of this is due to Hart's role as artist or how much can be laid at the feet of the otherwise sturdy work of producer Shirley, I'll split the fault in half because a performance like "With You Everyday" proves that Hart has the goods. A lovely R&B styled ballad that drips with emotion, Hart sounds like Etta James describing her heartbreak. Ditto for "Thru The Window Of My Mind," a slow-paced AOR ballad that offers Hart's most honest and soaring vocal performance framing a strong set of poetic lyrics above a crescendo of near-perfect guitars-keys-rhythm.
Hart's pal Joey B. drops by to lend a hand on "There In Your Heart," another emotional ballad that plays the singer's quivering, emotional vocals against the guitarist's subtle, but empathetic tremolo-drenched riffs before Bonamassa rips into an appropriately vocal solo. The artistic peak of Bang Bang Boom Boom, however, lays in the charming "Ugliest House On The Block." A defiant mid-tempo rocker with a vague island rhythm, Hart's lilting vocals sound punky, carefree, and resigned while the lyrics are brilliantly tongue-in-cheek, part humorous and part sad, the overall effect resulting in an entertaining, radio-friendly song.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Beth Hart's Bang Bang Boom Boom is maddeningly uneven – when it's good, it's very good, and when it's not, you just can't bother to care. She's a dynamic vocalist who can bring a lot of heart and soul to a performance, but Hart's obvious talents aren't served well here, and 'tis more the shame. Word is that Hart recently finished up a new album with Joey B. for mid-2013 release, so maybe the new record will frame her vocals in a better light than does Bang Bang Boom Boom. (Provogue Records, released October 16, 2012)
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