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February 2019

Katarina Pejak
Roads That Cross
Ruf Records

Katarina Pejak

So how did a young woman from Belgrade, Serbia wind up putting out one of the best blues albums I've heard in quite some time? Katarina Pejak was raised with the music, as her father ran a blues and jazz club in Belgrade and often played his favorite recordings for his young daughter, all while she feverishly started playing the piano. After coming to the United States, she earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Pejak has also been part of Ruf Records' 2019 Blues Caravan along with singer Ina Forsman and guitarist Ally Venable.

Yeah, this girl's got the musical chops and shows it on the very fine Roads That Cross (Ruf), recorded at Marz Studios in Texas and produced by Mike Zito. Pejak's earlier recordings, especially the excellent Perfume & Luck, stuck closer to her blues and jazz roots, while this newer collection allows her to spread her musical wings. The result is what may be the best album of 2019 (and we are barely into the new year!). She's backed here by a basic band consisting of the always fine Laura Chavez (guitar), Lonnie Trevino Jr. (bass) and Damien Llanes (drums).

Right from the start, Pejak shares with the listener the "Nature Of My Blues," a quirky, kind of eerie tune with '60s-ish keyboard effects that is a guide to the man trying to woo her, letting  him know that she's not some kind of ordinary girl. Great song! "Sex Kills," a Joni Mitchell tune that is one of the two covers on Roads That Cross, is given a Tom Waits haunting vibe, with nice guitar licks from Chavez and a hot piano solo from Pejak.

"Cool Drifter" is an up-tempo, uplifting song that describes her free spirit nature, singing "... I'm a cool drifter anywhere I go, never fly too high, never sink too low ..." Chavez's guitar playing is the highlight of "Moonlight Rider," especially with the Allman-ish solo opening the song. It's all about her wandering lover who she just can't make stay.

Pejak shows that she can bring out the blues on the slow, soulful number "Old Pain," with her keyboards having a touch of gospel overtones. That leads into the mid-tempo "Chasing Summer," kind of a rockin' blues in which she sings about the confusion in a relationship: "... We can't keep chasing summer, just because our hearts are cold, and we can't pretend we're lovers, 'cause we're sleeping on our own ..."

Another favorite cut of mine is Pejak's cover of Janis Joplin's "Turtle Blues," a slow blues shuffle on which she shows her proficiency in real old school blues piano as well as emotionally shouting out the vocals. Chavez throws down some killer blues guitar chords here, too. Sticking with the blues, albeit with a reggae beat, Pejak implores that man to keep his distance on "Down With Me," singing, "... So if you see me coming, close the door, and if you see me falling, let me hit the floor ..."

"She's Coming After You" is a Latin-tinged late night jazzy tune about that evil woman who her man can't resist, with Pejak softly belting out some of her most emotional, tortured vocals on the album while also inserting a tasty piano solo that leads into equally effective guitar from Chavez. That leads into the subtle title cut on which Pejak sings about the relationship that just didn't work out: "... We were stripped down to the pain, we touched souls  and faced the blues, we never knew that love always fades ..."

Closing the album is one of its best cuts, the slow, gospel-influenced blues, "The Harder You Kick," a sparse tune of redemption on which Pejak has figured out the price of a relationship that doesn't work out: "... Now, every good man is just too much work, that I end up regretting when I get hurt, the harder you kick, the deeper you sink in the quick sand ..." It's apparent that she's figured it all out as her voice sounds more optimistic in the song's final chorus.

Katrina Pejak is a star on the rise --- a fantastic, introspective songwriter, a nice subtle singer, and a very fine instrumentalist. She's like a breath of fresh air to the blues world, and Roads That Cross will hopefully be her stepping stone to greater fame and acclaim. Hop aboard the bandwagon now, because this young woman's going places fast.

--- Bill Mitchell



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