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Music Review: Janiva Magness – What Love Will Do

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I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m getting really sick of histrionic singing passing for emotion that has come to dominate popular music. If I have to listen to one more wannabe diva screech out her undying love in an upper register I might just go postal. Just because opera singers, who’ve probably spent more hours studying how to sing than most of their pale imitators have spent singing, can use the upper registers to for emotion, doesn’t mean that everybody should do it, or that popular music is even suited to such stylings.

If that abdominal woman in Las Vegas wasn’t bad enough, screeching her way to a million a week, the airways are now dominated by the clones of Brittany or painfully insincere, breathless voiced idiots who have to “share” their feelings with us. Why can’t they all just stay in Oprah land where they belong and leave the rest of us alone? Their singing is bad enough, but the brainless babbling that passes for lyrics is the final insult.

You would never know by listening to any of these supposed vocalists that they are the musical descendants of people like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Janis Joplin. All of whom could not only sing circles around any of them, but had more genuine emotion come out of their mouths yawning than these yahoos can ever hope to produce singing.

Compounding the insult of having to listen to these voices pollute the airwaves is the knowledge that there are vocalists as good as Janiva Magness out there, who don’t get anywhere near the popular acclaim of the pop tarts.

Janiva Magness.jpg
Listening to a disc like Janiva’s most recent release, What Love Will Do, on Alligator Records, makes you realize there is really no justice in the world and that pop music industry executives have their collective heads so far up their asses they’ve cut off all oxygen to their brains. There can’t be any other explanation as to why Janiva Magness isn’t on the top of the charts or her music in constant rotation on every radio station playing some form of popular music.

At least the blues industry can recognize talent when they hear it so she hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. Janiva won the best contemporary female artist award in 2006 and 2007 and was nominated for the B. B. King Entertainer Of The Year award in 2008 at the Blues Music Awards. Yet if you don’t follow blues music closely, there’s a good chance that you’ll not have heard this woman sing, and that’s a damn shame. Her husky and smoky voice growls out funk, brings real passion to a love song, and can send shivers up your spine with its power to speak to your heart.

Unlike some female vocalists who seem to sacrifice musicality for character, Janiva has more than one note in her repertoire. Aside from having the huskiest voice this side of Marlene Dietrich, she also has the range to prevent it from becoming a monotonous drone. She’s equally able to sing slower, almost torch song numbers, as she is up tempo funk and blues.

The thirteen tracks on What Love Will Do range from powerful covers of Annie Lennox’s “Bitter Pill” to the softness of a pensive version of “Sometimes You Got To Gamble.” As the title suggests, this is a disc of love songs, but we’re not talking about the sentimental pabulum that passes for love you hear most of the time. Sure, there are songs about having your heart broken, bad relationships, and all the other usual fodder for pop music, but they are being sung by an adult with the life experience to give them the credibility that a sixteen year old (or the mental/emotional equivalent) lacks.

While there’s many a singer who will make trite comments about a song having to move her in order to sing it and then sound as insincere as an insurance salesman, in Janiva’s case you know she’s telling the truth when she says “I could go through the gymnastics, but if it’s not the truth I’m not gonna mean it and that’ll show”.

You see, while the majority of the songs on this disc are about romantic love, she’s also trying to make a point about what genuine unconditional love can do for a person. Janiva spent a good deal of her adolescence in foster care, as she lost both of her parents to suicide by the time she was sixteen. Ever since she stabilized her own life she’s been heavily involved with raising awareness of what good positive foster parenting can do for a child and what love will do to turn somebody’s life around.

What Love Will Do is therefore more than just another collection of “love”songs, where some emotionally stunted ego whines about her broken heart and dreams about meeting the perfect boy to take her to the prom. Janiva might be singing lyrics about relationships or the desire to be loved by someone, but she’s motivated by the understanding that love is far more than just a word to describe the feelings one person has for another. It’s not often that I’d use the word sub-text when talking about popular music, but in this instance it’s her belief in the importance of unsentimental love that gives this disc the underlying power that makes it special.

Musically the disc is a mixture of funk, rhythm and blues, and straight ahead blues numbers. Not only can Janiva handle all the different genres with equal aplomb, but the band playing behind her is also equal to the task. She and co-producer Dave Darling have done a great job balancing the various instruments with her voice. They’ve shown a great sensitivity to the songs chosen by knowing just when they need that extra boost from the horn section, and when to pull almost everything back and let her voice do all the work.

In the end, What Love Will Do is all about Janiva Magness and her amazing ability to bring songs to life with power and integrity. If you want to hear a real woman sing real music for a change, than this is the disc for you. It will make you believe in what love can do.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.