The Bluegrass Special reviews Tempered in FireMar 14
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
By David McGee
TEMPERED IN FIRE
To be indelicate about this, while the mainstream music press is jerking off to Lana del Rey, there are women out there apart from the great Adele who are powerful singers, dynamic performers, assert presence born of experience, and are trying to say something meaningful in their songs. One of 2011’s top albums, Dana Fuchs’s Love to Beg, is a virtuoso display of original songwriting and electrifying, soulful singing, and it rocked like all getout in a gripping demonstration of her band responding to her emotional intensity.
Lisa Mills does right by George Borowski’s ‘Blue Guitars of Texas’
The same thing is happening on Lisa Mills’s second solo album, Tempered in Fire. Like Dana Fuchs, who played the singing role of Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway hit Love, Janis, Ms. Mills has her own Joplin connection–for three years she was the lead singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company. But like Ms. Fuchs, she is her own woman, steeped in the blues, as you might expect of a Mississippi native, and singing with gritty, searing authority–and with nuance, too: she can stomp and swagger with brio through her own funky soul strut “Why Do I Still Love You?” while unabashedly battling her conflicted feelings towards a guy she knows she can’t count on, in a heated, multi-textured reading worthy of Mavis Staples. Then, immediately following this, she demonstrates her mastery of the blues ballad in another original number, the ironically titled “My Happy Tune.” This grinding, tortured confession of abject romantic misery features the forlorn, fat-toned guitar of the estimable Andy Fairweather Low along with Matt Winch’s weeping flugelhorn solo enhancing the desolation and isolation Mills testifies to in a vocal display as raw as what she delivered on “Why Do I Still Love You?” but tempered and muted by her loss of equilibrium in the wake of rejection: “I’ve got let it go/it’s bringing me down/I want to be happy agai-ain,” she cries, aching for balance, trying to convince herself “there’s got to be a healing/won’t you lose this awful feeling/oh, now up is the only way to go” (rising to a falsetto cry on “go” in the song’s most vulnerable confession). And following that stirring moment, she completes a triumvirate of missives to the lovelorn with one of the most plaintive, passionate–and explicit–pleas for connection ever written, Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine.” In contrast to the great studio version Otis cut with the Stax house band (Cropper, Booker T., Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, Duck Dunn, et al.) on his Pain In My Heart album, which was nigh on to a gospel song pleading for salvation, Mills strips it down to a stark, bare-bones rumination, practically a prayer if it’s not a blues version of a saloon song. Only Fairweather Low’s somber (and sober) top-strings picking backs Mills, whose vocal, alternately assertive and quavering, tells the whole, unsettling story of a soul adrift.
Lisa Mills finds her own way into Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine’: practically a prayer, if it’s not a blues version of a saloon song.
Dana Fuchs too offers a powerful Otis Redding cover on Love to Beg in using “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” almost as a benediction to her album’s revelations of romantic upheaval, but most of the album’s songs are Fuchs originals. Only two of the 10 songs on Tempered in Fire are Mills originals (see above), but true to the gifted interpretive singer she is, Mills imbues tunes from other writers with such personal conviction as to make them her own; even Wet Willie’s beloved “Keep On Smiling,” here horn-infused and funky, gets a new coat of paint when Mills delivers it in a style as teary-eyed as it is hopeful–rather perfect for the storyline she’s advancing herein, and featuring another tasty Fairweather Low guitar solo. Three of the best of these are courtesy George Borowski, the famous “Guitar George” name-checked in Dire Straits’ career launching hit “Sultans of Swing.” His “Blue Guitars of Texas,” a thoughtful, low-key (with stormy choruses) consideration of a certain type of musician’s life on the road, allows Mills a moving showcase of her balladeer’s chops while also affording her an opportunity to belt it to the heavens on those choruses; in contrast, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” has some of that Buddy Holly herky-jerky splendor about it, its toned-down verses and full-bore rock ‘n’ roll chorusesa alike, and Mills eats it up with her on-the-money sense of when to lay back and when to crank it up; closing the album, Borowski’s “Someone Very Close” is an emotional, appropriately churning testimony of fidelity amidst rumors of infidelity spread by a source privy to classified personal intelligence (“someone ver close”). Digging in, Mills’s earnest, tender ministrations build and then explode into the bruised, howling protests of a woman seeing what she loves most slip away. As the song winds down, though, she repeats the title sentiment in a whisper, mantra-like, and it suddenly you sense she’s the one spreading the rumors she’s been warning against, and maybe this is in fact a kissoff on her part. Amidst all its memorable music, the complexities Mills reveals in her readings speak not only to the quality of the writing but to the depth of her artistry in making the most of the possibilities the songs offer her. Later for Lana; this is what it’s all about.