Marcia Ball has never sounded so compelling, so mesmerizing, so passionate as on So Many Rivers. And she makes it all a ball in the process. From the opening cover of “Foreclose on Love,” with its power-packed horn section, to the joyful, handclapping church-ish closer, “If It Ain’t One Thing,” this is hands-down the best collection of music Marcia Ball has released in a career studded with superb recordings.
She surrounds herself with first-rate players, including producer/guitarist Stephen Bruton, splits the program between impressive originals and carefully selected covers, and sings like a honky tonk angel with a solid backbeat. And, oh yeah, she just wails on the piano.
In the process, she covers a wide stylistic territory without leaving her Louisiana/Texas roots. Her take on Danny Timms’ “Dance With Me” has a sound closely akin to Delbert McClinton; her “Baby, Why Not,” with those sexy, sassy horns, has a punch that invites a dance floor; and her take on Timms’ “Honeypie,” with its Tex-Mex-meets-Zydeco accordion, courtesy of Wayne Toups, is one of the rockin'-est tunes of the year.
The mood takes a decidedly bluesy turn on Marcia’s plaintive “Give Me a Chance,” on which she takes it to church, and almost reminds of a Texas-style Aretha. “Didn’t You Know,” from the collaborative pens of Marcia Ball and Sarah Brown, is a heartbreaker that reminds, “...didn’t you know I’d get over you?...,” and on which her piano rides over a snaky rhythm that benefits greatly from guest Pat Boyack’s guitar work and Red Young’s B3.
The original “Give It Up,” with John Nicholas contributing harp, is a bluesy workout on which she sings “...I’m going to put on some perfume/and dress up nice/fry some chicken and bake a pie/I know all of your favorites and I’m making a list/I’m gonna lead you to temptation/I know you can’t resist...” If that man she’s out to make her own isn’t paying attention, there’s sure enough a long list of gents ready to take his place.
Joel Siegel’s funky title cut weds introspective lyrics to a rollicking beat with a bit of a Little Feat groove. She backs that rocker with the gorgeous ballad of “The Storm,” on which she sings of a relationship that is able to withstand cloudy skies.
Another original, “The Lowdown,” has a Lyle Lovett feel with its clever lyrics (“...All my friends are busy/I’ve been working, too/But it seems like I would hear a word or two from you...”), great piano work and a horn section to die for. Song of the Year is written all over this one.
Danny Timms’ “Hurricane on China Lake” is a visual piece that showcases Marcia’s emotive vocals over a superb arrangement.
It’s telling that she dedicates the disc to “the songwriters.” She makes every song here her own, regardless of the source, which may be the greatest gift a musician can give a song writer. “Three Hundred Pounds of Hongry,” written by Donnie Fritts and Eddie Hinton, is a fine example. With Bruton’s mandolin leading the way, the back porch-straining number is as much fun as it is musically impressive. When Marcia sings “...Everybody asks me why/Do you love a man that’s twice your size/Well, don’t you know it’s the bigger the better/That three hundred pounds/ sho’ ‘nuf got it together...,” it’s easy to believe she means it. Eating barbecue was never so easy to rationalize.
“If It’s Really Got to Be This Way,” from the impressive pens of Donnie Fritts, Arthur (“You Better Move On”) Alexander and Gary Nicholson, is another tune that Marcia takes for her own. With its stark keys, bass, and drums backing, Marcia sings that “...she’ll cry, but she’ll get by...,” demonstrating one of her greatest assets, the ability to sing a tearful ballad with as much authority as she drives a rocker.
Marcia Ball calls folks like Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas her heroes. Over the last couple of albums with Alligator, she has stepped decisively into the same league.
At a dab under half-way through 2003, “So Many Rivers” may just be the disc to beat for Record of the Year.
--- Mark E. Gallo
Editor's Note: I wholeheartedly concur that this is a wonderful disc, also the best that I've heard this year ... maybe even in the last couple of years. --- Bill
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