Alligator Records[Release date 03.08.18]
Shemekia Copeland’s ‘America’s Child’ is very much an album of our times. The title is an all enveloping concept that leads into a bunch of related, philosophical and at times analytical songs that shift from the micro to macro, suggesting that the cultural diversity to be found in track ‘Americans’ is a cause for celebration, rather than much of the current polarity in the US.
Copeland is an emotive singer with a fine range who uses her vibrato sparingly. She explores a contemporary take on the blues with Americana, funk and gospel influences, on an album that focuses on lyrical meaning and the quality of songs.
‘America’s Child’ is her 8th album, and casts her as mature interpretative vocalist who though not contributing any songs, effectively curates and brings to life an album that has a social conscience at its core.
Producer/guitarist/songwriter Will Kimbrough provides the perfect showcase for Shemekia’s vocal talent and her expressive phrasing. He provides a nuanced sonic palette for a dozen songs that extend the core notions of tolerance and diversity into a coherent flow from beginning to end.
Copeland sets out her stall as an independent spirit on the opening ‘I Ain’t Got Time For Hate’, which nicely balances her clarity of diction with Kimbrough’s husky guitar tones, while ‘One I Love’ further personalises her fierce autonomy on a melange of Kimbrough’s slide and J.D. Wilkes’ big toned harp.
She extends the core album theme of inclusively on the excellent ‘Americans’ – one of 2 Mary Gauthier and John Hahn penned songs – which is a celebration cultural diversity, delivered over pedal steel and a Bo Diddley beat.
Their other contribution is the banjo led “Smoked Ham And Peaches,” which could almost be Neil Young. It’s another enquiring piece with evocative lines such as the de facto lyrical resolution: “When the whole world seems fake, give me something real.”
But there’s more, as she leans into the song: “Hank Williams singing a whistle of a far away train, open the window and let in the gentle spring rain.”
‘In The Blood Of The Blues’, is another highlight. It’s a booming gospel arrangement that showcases her vocal prowess perfectly on the bridge: “I’m between the lines of ever song, I’m the reason the blues is keeping on.”
The guests provide the perfect framework for her passionate performances, most notably on the duet with John Prine on his own self penned funky ‘Great Rain’.
He adds a low register husk in contrast to her vocal clarity and Will Kimbrough’s dirt toned guitar. The end of the song ad-lib suggests a celebratory wrap: “Alright take the rest of the day off.”
Shemekia also transforms Ray Davies’s ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ into an unlikely gospel intro, as she gets inside the song by extending her range effortlessly over funky back beat.
She reaches new heights on ‘Would You Take My Blood?’, with a great vocal performance that rises above a gentle swampy groove with more poignant lyrics: “Now we all made of flesh and bone, when we die we die alone, some souls rise and others burn, no-one knows ’til it’s our turn, we all share a sad history, but I’ll take a chance on you, if you take a chance on me.”
There’s a sudden uplifting pulse as she attacks the song with the kind of total conviction that marks this album out as special.
‘America’s Child’ works so well because the different musical arrangements support both the feel of the songs and lyrical meaning, rather than just facilitating variety for its own sake.
This occasionally leads to moments of sharp contrast, as between the exuberant rocking of ‘The Wrong Idea’ and the soulful blues of her dad Johnny’s ‘Promised Myself’, before she finds an equilibrium on the groove laden ‘In The Blood of The Blues.’
‘America’s Child’ is a contemporary roots album with substance and depth. And if you follow the linear thematic trail, dive into the musical sweep and enjoy her passionate attack and emotive phrasing, then it reveals itself as an album with plenty to say as part of a fresh take on the blues. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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