From the first bar of When My Sister Sings the Blues, with its solitary slide guitar softly moaning to the spoken word homage of Felicia Davis, this is one album that knocks it out of the park. Thornetta herself steps up quickly on I Gotta Sang the Blues, in a duet with The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson, who underpins the song with a smokin’ blues harp that grabs you by the collar and won’t let go. This track is also a statement of her passion for the blues, something consistently evident on this outstanding album.
In her liner notes, Davis says it took her 20 years to put this labour of love together, only her second studio album. You don’t get much more dedicated than that, and it’s great to see artists like Davis and Lisa Biales producing work that is more about passion than just a tawdry urge for fame. Far too many celebrities these days are famous for being famous, not for the quality of their work. They should sit at the feet of Lisa and Thornetta for a few lessons in authenticity. There’s a world of difference between Just Your Next Album and a Labour of Love.
That Don’t Appease Me keeps the pace brisk with a great anchoring guitar riff by Brett Lucas that lets Davis hit the ground running. It’s a delicious groove and the unprocessed samples of trash talk at the end add a nice modern touch. Set Me Free follows with Davis supported by powerhouse backup vocals with a gospel edge and featuring the Larry McCray Band. (Am I) Just a Shadow slows things down to give us a chance to swing softly with a partner. Although in the classic tradition of the Bad Love Ballad, Davis’s lyrics project a fully empowered contemporary woman, seeking a partner who sees her as a complete person, not just a sexual partner or shallow stereotype. This is a deep touchstone in the blues—music as a vehicle for social commentary and at times even satire, going back to the earliest field chants singing in code about ‘the man.’
I Need a Whole Lot of Lovin’ to Satisfy Me picks up the pace again, with Davis fully into Blues Mama voice and a catchy chorus once again supported by great backing vocals. I’m amazed she gets away with the line: “If you ain’t packin’, baby, then you better leave,” but then, this is the 21st century. Men in the blues have been writing double entendre lyrics about feminine sexual attributes for ages already.
I Believe (Everything Gonna Be Alright) is probably my favourite song on the album. I’m a sucker for a great electric slide guitar, and Brett Lucas once again delivers with pitch perfect control and menacing intensity. Lucas could give Clapton a run for his money on this one. Davis’s lyrics are as thoughtfully composed as ever, providing a message of hope in dark times. Davis is an astute enough producer to know when she’s found a good thang, so Lucas appears throughout the album. On Sister Friends Indeed his slide guitar work sets up a swingin’ groove with another catchy chorus and a Southern Baptist vocal and handclaps breakdown at the end. Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues gives us some Chicago blues with a tastefully employed horn line that does for us just what its title says. As John Latini sings on his album, the great irony is that The Blues Just Makes Me Feel Good.
I could go on, track by track, but let’s just say there isn’t a bummer song on the album. The media kit I received compares Davis to just about every major blues diva who’s ever graced a microphone. “Has the timbre like Sarah Vaughan.” “Belts the blues like Bessie Smith.” “Has the power of Big Mama Thornton.” “Touches you in your soul like Aretha Franklin.” While this may be just a little bit overstated, it’s fair to say that Davis has excellent range, control and power in her voice. She moves seamlessly from a slow dance groove to a fast shuffle, always with a great sense of articulated passion. Clearly she’s one of the best female blues vocalists working today, dubbed Detroit’s ‘Queen of the Blues’ in 2015.
For a first-time producer, Davis has an uncanny sense of how to make all the elements work—bits of soul, Chicago blues, Delta slide, blues harp, Hammond organ, gospel… all skillfully woven together to create the quintessential blues album. All too often, indie productions run aground on the rocks of inexperienced producers or recording technicians, resulting in songs not fully realized or recordings that fail to snap to life, or worse—are buried in sludge. Not so on Honest Woman. The mix here by Brian Roscoe White is beautiful—the definition of every instrument clear but not annoyingly crisp (a common fault of digital recordings), the midrange and bass tones well balanced with the highs. The result is a naturalistic listening experience not unlike sitting in the audience at a well-produced show.
Honest Woman gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me, with the 5-star rating reserved for the original classic albums of the blues canon. Even the graphic design for the album is first-rate. Superb!