The blues is like a fine cut of steak – it can be served up as a main course, or used as one ingredient in a more elaborate multi-course meal. A pair of recent releases demonstrates these two contrasting approaches. Former Little Feat vocalist Shaun Murphy dishes out greasy, roadhouse blues on Ask for The Moon. Singer/songwriter Beth Hart takes a different approach on Bang Bang Boom Boom. While Hart’s music is a diverse blend of rock, pop and contemporary soul, the blues remains a crucial ingredient in the mix.
Many vocalists take on the blues, but it’s rare for an artist to sound fully at home with them the way Shaun Murphy does on Ask for The Moon. Her deep, weathered voice brims with confidence. Whether leading her band through a driving shuffle like “Mighty Long Road” or the scorching slow blues of “It’s My Own Tears,” she sounds like she’s in her element. An energetic, funky arrangement anchors the title track – keyboardist Johnny Neel and guitarist Shawn Starski play off one another beautifully, and Murphy delivers the optimistic lyrics with aplomb. On the tongue in cheek “Ugly Man Blues,” Murphy’s voice has a wry edge while Tim Gonzalez’s gritty harp playing adds down-home atmosphere.
While blues is a central focus for Murphy, she does vary the mood by exploring other musical styles. “Let’s Talk About Love” is a melodic pop tune with a touch of soul grit – Murphy’s gospel tinged harmonies with guest Bekka Bramlett are reminiscent of the The Staple Singers. Murphy shows a softer side on the tender ballad “When It Rains.” While the lyrics are sentimental and affectionate, Murphy’s powerful voice coupled with some muscular organ playing retain the earthy, roadhouse atmosphere that permeates the rest of the recording.
If Ask For the Moon feels like a visit to a roadside bar and grill, Beth Hart’s Bang Bang Boom Boom takes listeners to a hip upscale café. Blues and soul music might not be the house specials, but if you study the menu closely you can spot a few choice selections. Hart has a strong pop music background – many tracks on Bang Bang Boom Boom feature lush arrangements and radio-friendly touches like strings and double tracked vocals. Yet, when Hart turns her attention to blues or classic soul, she does so with enough grit and authenticity to satisfy roots music fans.
The searing minor key workout “Caught Out In the Rain” shows that Hart’s blues chops are in fine form – blistering guitar licks by Keith Robinson and Michael Bearden’s gut wrenching organ chords add to the lowdown atmosphere. “With You Every Day” is a beautiful soul ballad with a stripped down arrangement and soaring vocals that owe a debt to Aretha Franklin. Hart’s obvious love of soul music is similarly showcased on the gospel-tinged “Spirit of God.” While the horns and rhythm section sound right out of Memphis, Hart’s high powered vocals recall Mavis Staples.
Hart makes use of a broad musical palette, and Bang Bang Boom Boom visits a wide variety of musical styles beyond blues and soul. Hart’s impassioned vocals and a soaring guitar solo from Robinson give “There In Your Heart” the energy of a rock anthem. The biting, sarcastic lyrics of “The Ugliest House on the Block” take listeners back to the ironic 90’s when introspective singer/songwriters like Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette dominated the pop charts. Even with these musical detours, a stunning rendition of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” leaves listeners with no doubts about Hart’s roots music credentials. In a show-stopping performance, Hart puts her personal stamp on a beloved soul classic while holding her own alongside legendary guitarist Jeff Beck.
Whether you prefer a rare T-bone and a Coke or a flank steak with spinach salad and a glass of Merlot, Ask For the Moon and Bang Bang Boom Boom should satisfy your cravings for a generous helping of American music.
– Jon Kleinmann