Catherine Russell – Sentimental Streak
I’ve just been complaining about the glut of standards albums in the marketplace these days. Well, here’s one that works because it trades the stuffy academic approach for the raw vitality of a southern juke joint. Russell, daughter of longtime Louis Armstrong musical director Luis Russell, has the jazz pedigree and the sultry voice, but what ultimately sets this album apart is the song selection, which is surprising, earthy, and often funny. Eschewing the obvious choices, Russell digs deep into the back catalogues to pull out Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man,” a wondrously carnal stew spiced with double entendres, and Alberta Hunter’s “You For Me, Me for You.” Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans,” although much better known, takes on an elegiac quality in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Russell isn’t a belter, and she’s singing songs associated with some well-known belters. But the usual jazz quintet accompaniment is augmented by Dylan protégé and producer Larry Campbell on mandolin, guitar, violin, and pedal steel, and the end result is a fine, rootsy amalgam of jazz and R&B.
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
She should have said Yes, Yes, Yes, and maybe the current stint in rehab will help. I hope so. But I keep coming back to this album. It is beautifully, soulfully sung. Amy absolutely nails the Phil Spector Girl Group songs, but the nostalgia factor is surprisingly, effectively mitigated through the intensely personal nature of the songwriting. Mark Ronson’s production may be indebted to all those old school Stax/Volt records, but Aretha and Otis never sang anything remotely like “What kind of fuckery is this?/You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.” It’s the forceful, indomitable personality that puts this music across as much as the refurbished Motown and Stax instrumentation, or that brassy powerhouse of a voice. The demons are strong, but Amy gives evidence that her own force of will may be stronger. Here’s hoping that it works out that way in real life.
Shelby Lynne – Just a Little Lovin’
When I was a teenager I worked as a busboy at the Holiday Inn in Crete, Illinois. Every Friday and Saturday night the lounge band, featuring the incomparable Holly Denise, would hold forth, performing tastefully unobtrusive covers of The Carpenters and Helen Reddy and Dionne Warwick from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. By the end of each evening I was tastefully, unobtrusively nearly suicidal.
Shelby Lynne is a very fine singer. On Just a Little Lovin’ she’s channeling Dusty Springfield, another very fine singer, and, except for the omitted “Son of a Preacher Man,” she covers most of Dusty’s best songs. Phil Ramone’s production is so understated as to be almost non-existent, and Shelby coos these songs softly, just like Holly Denise, injecting just enough sultriness to keep the piano player awake and almost involved in the proceedings. She’s impeccably, tastefully boring as hell. This isn’t Dusty in Memphis; it’s Shelby at the Holiday Inn Lounge in Crete, Illinois. Make it stop.