Whenever I hear Janiva Magness has a new album out I can’t help but to smile and wonder what surprises she has in store for the unsuspecting blues public.
I was practically knocked unconscious when I heard Bury Him At The Crossroads (Northern Blues), the fourth release as a leader from this brilliantly gifted diva who has consistently thought outside the box and dared to be different as her last three recordings (reviewed by yours truly in Blues Bytes --- November 1999, December 2001 and July 2003) have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt.
On this outing Ms. Magness hitches up her boots and gets back to her roots, in a manner of speaking. Now some of you out there are probably rolling your eyes and thinking “Oh, geez ... Not another typical ‘back to the roots’ acoustic blues recordings of the same old standards that have been in over abundance the past couple of years.” Get that thought out of your head right now because this exceptional recording is anything but typical. Finally someone has put out what can be classified as a roots album that is not completely acoustic and doesn’t rely on trying to sound like it was cut 70 years ago with today's technology and production.
Quite the contrary. Bury Him At The Crossroads takes a very modern contemporary approach that melds yesterday’s musical simplicity with modern day musical sophistication resulting in 13 breathtaking numbers presented as only Janiva Magness’ powerful voice can.
The accompanying quartet are some of the best backing musicians in the business, anchored by the tone-soaked guitar work of Colin Linden (who co-produced with Magness). Handling bass and rhythm guitars, along with baritone sax and banjo duties, is a man whose accolades I can’t say enough about, Janiva’s hubby Mr. Jeff Turmes. This cat could also be known as a one-man band because of his multifaceted talents on just about every instrument you could possibly find on a blues record, not to mention some stellar song writing as well. Delicately stroking the 88’s on piano and B3 is the immensely gifted Richard Bell, who already knows a thing or two about backing knock-you-on-your butt female vocalists from his days in Janis Joplin’s band. The maestro of blues drummers, Stephen Hodges, supplies his percussive genius with his usual subtle flair.
But enough of my babbling --- let’s push on to the good stuff. A juke joint-styled original stomp penned by Jeff Turmes, entitled “A Woman Knows,” gets the ball rolling with a bit of insight as well as a slight warning about that damnable women’s intuition that every female of the species seems to possess (how do they do that, anyway?). Nonetheless, it’s a fun little tune that plasters a smile on your face rather quickly, even though it might make the male gender squirm a bit in the process.
A mind boggling cover of J.B. Lenoir’s “The Whale Has Swallowed Me” follows, with Magness just plain belting out the lyrics with the melodic picking of Linden providing the sole accompaniment on this spiritually surrealistic tune.
I suspect Ms. Magness is a bit of a Magic Sam fan, as she included one of his tunes on her last record and tears the house down this time with an atomic reworking of his ”Everything Gonna Be Alright” that features some wicked guitar and piano work alongside Janiva’s growling vocals.
The crooning diva that is always present in Magness’ music takes center stage for a bit of heart string tugging on Sam Cooke’s “Lost And Lookin,” a bit of a somber lament that creeps into your soul whether you want it to or not.
A glowing Colin Linden composition, “Wasn’t That Enough,” pairs just himself and Janiva together again for the slightly funky and snappy tale of someone who gave all they had in the grand arena of love and got zip in return.
The middle third of this album is where you will find what are in my opinion the shining jewels of this collection, beginning with the heart-wrenching number ”The Soul Of A Man,” which Magness pours every ounce of her heart into and is offset so gorgeously by the piano stylings of Richard Bell.
A down home country feel follows, with Lindens twangy acoustic licks permeating “That’s No Way To Get Along,” a toe-tapping little ditty that finds Janiva in perfect form, and is followed by a solid performance of another Turmes original, the the title track Bury Him At The Crossroads. This number has a bit of a haunting arrangement much like a funeral procession, which is only fitting considering its title. Linden’s eerie slide, coupled with Hodges’ percussion and Magness’ testifying lyrics, will more than likely have you reaching for the repeat button on your player.
A fabulous cover of Marvin Gaye’s “One More Heartache” follows, with Janiva stretching out her gorgeous pipes to the max while whopping you upside your head with a stunning delivery that is surrounded by a less is more approach by the band.
Three lighthearted Jeff Turmes-penned pieces anchor the final third of the album. “I’m Leaving You” is up first with it’s title being self-explanatory of its content and finds Magness invoking a farewell to a relationship gone bad with that ever-prevalent twinkle in her voice that would be a sparkle in the eye if this were visual. The very funny “Less And Less Of You” follows with its hilarious story of an accident-prone road warrior that keeps destroying or leaving various body parts in cities around the country before disappearing completely. On an equally humorous note is the album’s closing tongue-in-cheek number, “Eat The Lunch You Brought,” whose sly lyrics can’t help but to make you giggle a bit despite the tune's adulterous theme.
Five years ago I heard an album by Kid Ramos that featured a female vocalist on a couple of tunes, and was so impressed by the fire she put into her work that I got curious to see if perhaps she had anything out there on her own. That vocalist was Janiva Magness, and that same fire has remained paramount throughout every project she has attempted since and just plain erupts like a volcano on Bury Him At The Crossroads. It was my impression back then that this lady had the stuff to be a major star in the blues world, and still stand by that conviction. It’s time to give this amazing and fabulously gifted singer her just due as this lady proves time and again that she is not just a flash in the pan but the absolute real deal.
I can honestly say without reservation that Bury Him At The Crossroads is undoubtedly her best work to date. If you haven’t heard Janiva Magness yet, then you are indeed missing one of the best blues singers of modern times. This one gets a standing ovation.
--- Steve Hinrichsen
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