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Music Review: Janiva Magness – The Devil Is An Angel Too

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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! 

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About John Taylor

  • I haven’t picked this one up yet but I’ve predicted it would start making its move and it has on the RMR charts (linked to your review in my article on the subject).

    Janiva has yet to win me over but I know this album is going to get a huge BMA push so I feel compelled to give it a careful listen. Your review is excellent. I’ll have to see where I come out.

  • John Taylor

    To me she’s the best around – there’s a whole world of emotion in every word she sings. Her discs on NorthernBlues were colored by Colin Linden’s production – there was just a bit too much of it, and Janiva herself seemed part of the aural landscape. Here she’s completely in charge, and gives it all she’s got. Highly recommended!

  • Now that’s an interesting point about the production, John. I was turned off by Do I Move You? and I never came back. I didn’t hear her first Alligator offering and haven’t heard this yet. I am going to check it out, though, and maybe I’ll have that revelation moment.

  • dave darling

    Nice review, thank you. To correct something in the article, the strings on Janiva’s record are real – played by Stevie Blacke.
    best dd

  • Hey, John, I just got my own copy of this CD as I said that I would. I have insisted that I’m going to dig in and figure out why Janiva and I have not connected yet. I think you’re right about the production being part of it. I like the atmosphere of this one better already. Four songs in and I like this album at least 1000x more than I liked ‘Do I Move You?’

  • Want to hear something funny, John? I just went back and re-read my ‘Do I Move You?’ review and most of my complaints with the record were, in fact, with the production and the material. It did seem to make the difference this time out. I might have to go back and try ‘What Love Will Do.’

  • John Taylor

    Hi Josh –
    I’m genuinely glad you’re enjoying Janiva. She just keeps getting better and better. “DO I Move YOu” was good, but the atmospheric production was too much a part of things – rather inescapable, and it cast a solemn pall over proceedings that dragged things down. Her latest is both easier and more fun to listen to …
    Hope you have a great time at the BMA’s – wish I could be there!