Sunday, May 21, 2017

CD Review: Janiva Magness's Blue Again EP (2017)

Janiva Magness's Blue Again EP
For my money, Janiva Magness is arguably the finest, most dynamic vocalist in blues music today. A multiple Blues Music Award winner and a Grammy® Award nominee for her 2016 album Love Wins Again, Magness can purr like a kitten and roar like a lion, often times within the same performance, her voice an instrument on par with two other great R&B talents, Etta James and Koko Taylor. So I dove into Magness’s latest, Blue Again, with great expectations and while I was not disappointed, I do have a minor cavil – it’s just too damn short! Let’s be honest, 23 minutes and 35 seconds of Janiva Magness just isn’t enough, a six-song EP like Blue Again more of an appetizer than a feast...tho’ that doesn’t prevent it from being a satisfying experience nonetheless.

Janiva Magness’s Blue Again

Blue Again may be six songs brief, but it’s a whirlwind of a ride, beginning with the delightfully old-school sound of “I Can Tell,” the lesser-known B-side of a Bo Diddley R&B chart hit from 1962. Guest star Kid Ramos’s guitar trembles and shakes like the first winds before a thunderstorm, the rhythm shuffles along nicely like it’s late for a date, and the echoed production adds enough space to Magness’s voice that it amplifies her lusty, swaggering vocals to the point of red-lining the meters. Magness’s magnificent cover of Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat & Tears’ classic “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (from their Child Is Father to the Man LP) takes the song in a somewhat different direction, slowing down the pace and turning up the heartbreak to eleven.

The vibrating guitars that intro the performance segue nicely into Magness’s vocals, offering a counterpoint to the emotion that is literally pouring out of your speakers. When the instrumentation takes an unexpected, jazzy turn and the keyboards rise up, Magness’s voice rides the wave like a professional surfer. The band creates a dense, mesmerizing, outstanding instrumental ambiance for the song and Magness should win a Grammy® Award for her performance here alone. It’s true what they say that a great song is like putty in the hands of a great singer, and Magness paints a masterpiece with her blistering reading of Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.”

If I Can’t Have You

The listener can be excused if they need to take a cold shower after Blue Again’s second song, but there’s another dandy comin’ up on the Victrola – Magness’s duet with Sugaray Rayford on the Etta James’ classic “If I Can’t Have You” is simply priceless – their contrasting voices rising above the energetic soundtrack to create an entertaining song that is both contemporary-sounding and a throwback to 1950s-era R&B. Originally a vehicle for James and Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, to their credit, Magness and Rayford find their own path for the song while keeping the spirit of the original. “Tired of Walking” is another vintage R&B jam, penned by obscure soulman Joe Hinton. The band lays down a raucous rockabilly rhythm with a bluesy undercurrent for the song, on top of which Magness lays out a blustery vocal performance that is more Koko than Etta, if you get my meaning.

Best known as recorded by the legendary Nina Simone, “Buck” is probably my least favorite track here, but that’s like trying to choose between your favorite pizza toppings. The guitars – Zach Zunis and/or Garrett Deloian – sting with the ferocity of a mad hornet, and guest harpist T.J. Norton’s harmonica adds just the right dose of soul beneath Magness’s forceful vocals. Blue Again’s finishing track, Freddie King’s “Pack It Up,” is more to my taste with the guitars providing squalls of notes dueling beneath Magness’s throaty, soul-drenched vocals. Arlan Schierbaum’s tasteful Hammond organ flourishes ride shotgun alongside the rhythm section of bassist Gary Davenport and drummer Matt Tecu, who have provided a strong yet subtle backbone for all the performances. It’s Magness’s incredible vocals that stoke the fires on Blue Again, though, the woman singing every song like the world is ending.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The last couple of albums from Janiva Magness – 2014’s Original and 2016’s Love Wins Again – were stunning works that explored pop, soul, and gospel music with sly original songs and stellar performances. It’s nice to see Magness reach back to her roots with Blue Again, the singer admitting to deliberating long and hard on the EP’s choice of songs. In a press release for Blue Again, Magness stated “There’s definitely been an evolution, an arc over the course of time of the kinds of songs that I’ve elected to do and the kinds of songs I now write. I wanted to bring that arc full circle. I wanted to make a record of what and where I come from. It was important to me emotionally and spiritually.” Magness accomplished what she set out to do with Blue Again, the EP’s six songs displaying more passion and emotion, heart and soul than you’ll hear from any other singer, no matter the genre. Grade: A (Blue √Član Records, released May 12, 2017)

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