Janiva Magness has diligently forged a career that’s seen her rise steadily to the top in the world of blues. With The Devil Is An Angel Too, she proves there’s far more than typical twelve-bar convention on her mind.
It’s not exactly a concept album, but Magness points out that the compositions she’s chosen for her second Alligator outing explore the duality of the human condition – the good and the bad, the devil and the angel in all of us. Far from restrictive, though, the theme proves broad indeed as Magness delivers an even dozen tunes with smoldering intensity and sass to spare.
Magness employs a varied cast revolving around a core band driven by the twin guitar attack of Dave Darling and Zach Zunis, anchored by drummer Stephen Hodges and augmented here and there by husband Jeff Turmes. It’s a seasoned and agile ensemble that fits like a glove. Arrangements range from the big, bold sound of “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” (with both Farfisa organ and Wurlitzer providing a thick sonic cushion) to the stripped-down closer, “Turn Your Heart In My Direction,” a tender tune written by Turmes that features synthesized strings. In short, instrumentation is as appropriate, with atmospheric production and lots of moody keys to frame Magness’ magnificent pipes.
The material is an eclectic batch indeed, with soul as prominent in the mix as blues. The title track, written by Julie Miller, kicks things off with a menacing jungle beat. “Slipped, Tripped And Fell In Love” is slinky and sultry, and Magness does a magnificent job on the old soul chestnut, “Walkin’ In The Sun.” “I’m Feelin’ Good” seems an odd choice given it was written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, best known for contributions to musical theatre, but in Magness’ hands it’s a passionately soulful declaration that leaves no doubt there’s a great deal of darkness behind her sunny outlook.
Also included is “Save Me,” a typically soulful tune from Gary Nicholson, an aching ballad that features more of those synthesized strings (usually a bad sign, here they’re quite effective). There’s one from Delbert McClinton (the roadhouse-ready “Your Love Took A U-Turn”), as well as a bouncy cover of Joe Tex’ “I Want To Do Everything For You” and another Turmes tune, the typically quirky “Weeds Like Us.” None of it is typical blues fare, yet there’s a bluesy edge to everything that ought to keep the purists happy enough.
Magness is at the top of her game here, delivering a richly nuanced take on every tune. Her voice is an expressive marvel, and she exhibits absolute control and utter mastery throughout. She’s as tough as nails when required, achingly tender when the moment is right, and supremely confident in her ability to convey emotion from either end of the spectrum. It simply doesn’t get much better than this …
An outing bordering on outright brilliance, Janiva Magness has single-handedly upped the bar with The Devil Is An Angel Too. This one's essential listening!