I’ve always felt an affinity with Janiva Magness. We were born in the same year after all, although she still looks stunning whereas I have succumbed to the ravages of a very hard paper round. (A clue; in the year of our birth, the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched). Her previous work has led to numerous awards, particularly from the blues community. She is about to unleash her 14th album, which takes a more soulful approach and mixes this up with Americana, country and the occasional blues-imbued track.
Called Love Is an Army, the cover image has an out-of-focus hand grenade, which is a subtle, visual clue for the lyrical content of her latest album. We are left in no doubt about her feelings on the current political climate as Magness has channelled these thoughts into a dozen songs, most written either by her or veteran producer/guitarist Dave Darling. It is as if the ‘protest song’ is back in fashion. Not all of these emotions are negative, however, as she entreaties us with “It’s going to take some kind of love, to cure all this pain”. Yes, Janiva still believes in the power of love to help her, and her listeners, through the world’s tribulations. “Dave Darling and I had a real sense of urgency when we were writing and recording this album,” Magness explains. “What led the album was the lyrics, and the things that are happening right now — the division, the racism, the violence, and our leaders’ lack of concern about basic human issues like health care and poverty”. The serious and salient commentary of the lyrics does not, I assure you, detract from the musical quality of each track, and the production is of such a high calibre that every note and inflection of the band and singers is crystal clear.
Opener Back to Blue is gospel-tinged and has a lilting guitar backed by smooth keys. A very soulful vocal with solid backing vocals leave you feeling warm despite the “you turn away, and I’m turning back to blue” lyric. Hammer is next and ii the features the first guest in the guise of Charlie Musslewhite on harmonica. This is faster paced and, although still on the soul side, has a blues shuffle sensibility. Rusty Young of Poco fame, adds some understated yet highly effective pedal steel guitar, while Magness almost serenades over the musical theme. This inevitably has a country feel and reminiscent of the Rose Garden style and so, to me comes across as the weakest track here. Tell Me, however, is the best. This has a simplistic guitar progression but is all the stronger for it. It even has a sing-a-long chorus, but it is the bass theme and subtle guitar, overlaid by Magness’ heartfelt singing, which makes this high-quality blues. The title track is a ballad which somehow has mixed blues, gospel and pop, with Magness’ voice again drenched in emotion as she sings, “If love is an army, sadness the enemy, you know I will fight for you.” This is a duet with Bryan Stephens who ensures he empathises with Magness in tone and sentiment. Down Below features bluegrass guitar and banjo virtuoso Courtney Hartman. A simple kick drum backing gives a surprisingly adept rhythm to keep the guitar of Hartman centre stage, while the multi-tracked vocal keeps it interesting. What’s That Say About You is a more up-tempo soul classic in waiting? What I Could Do has the excellent Delbert McClinton joining Magness to great effect. Home is a duet with Cedric Burnside with a slow shuffle neatly punctuated by handclaps and tambourine. Burnside reinforces the lyrics with a great performance that balances his earnest singing with surprising psychedelic guitar tones. Love To a Gunfight reasserts Magness’ solid belief that love can indeed conquer all. This is another slow country style with the pedal steel in the background. “This song’s our weapon tonight” kind of sums up the problems of the world in her view and the solution is there if the powers that be want to listen. When It Rains is probably the best showcase of Magness’ voice on the entire album. It shows off her amazing range and interpretative skills over more pedal steel and bass. The closing track, Some Kind of Love, has just piano accompaniment, with her vocals and intense delivery leaving no doubt how good a singer she is.
In summary, I am much more blues than soul and prefer the more blues-based songs. In saying that, no one could deny this lady has one hell of a voice that fits in any style, be it blues, gospel, country, Americana or soul. After numerous listens I can’t help but enjoy every track even if I wouldn’t necessarily seek them all out.
I think I have the band members listed correctly; it took some interweb digging to get them all. Apologies to them and Janiva if I got it wrong.
SEVENdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Back To Blue
- On And On
- Tell Me
- Love Is An Army
- Down Below
- What’s That Say About You
- What I Could Do
- Love To A Gunfight
- When It Rains
- Some Kind Of Love
Janiva Magness: vocals
Stephen Hodges: drums
Davey Raragher: bass
Arlan Schierbaum: keys
Doug Livingston: pedals steel, dobro
Dave Darling: guitar
Phil Parlapiano: piano
Kudisan Kai, Sugaray Rayford, Gary Pinto, Natasha Pinto, Thrones, Aurelia, Dave Darling, Brie Darling: backing vocals
Charlie Musselwhite: harmonica on track 2
Rusty Young: pedal steel on track 3
Bryan Stephens: vocals on track 5
Courtney Hartman: guitar, banjo on track 6
Delbert McClinton: vocals on track 8
Cedric Burnside: guitar and vocals on track 9