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Music Review: Judith Owen – Mopping Up Karma

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Judith Owen is the sort of artist that makes you want to throw labels out the window. So what if she’s generally listed under jazz? There’s nothing on her albums that wouldn’t play well on an intelligent FM rock station — that is, if you can find one these days.

I suppose the jazz tag has stuck to Owen because of her extraordinary vocal purity and technique. Her natural gift is a voice like watered silk, full of coloratura glints and shadows, but she brings in shrewdly intelligent phrasing and a gutsy rhythmic sense that work equally well as alt-rock. Like her frequent collaborator Richard Thompson (another underrated virtuoso), she can get plenty funky when she wants to; comparisons to Dusty Springfield and Chrissie Hynde are equally appropriate.

Judith OwenOwen’s songwriting also steers her latest album, Mopping Up Karma, out of conventional jazz territory. She has crafted numbers that showcase her own talents – scatting melodies that demonstrate huge range and dead-on pitch, restless syncopations that demand keyboard virtuosity – but it’s the content that’s most distinctive. With a voice of such liquid beauty, Owen could easily have gone for lush sentimentality. Instead, Mopping Up Karma is fiercely edgy and ironic. (It comes as no surprise to learn that she’s married to comedian Harry Shearer, a man with his own dark sense of humor.)

Even her love songs are hardly about dewy romance – they’re relentless investigations into the collateral damage of jealousy, betrayal, and cruelty (hence the rueful “mopping up karma” of the title). Other tracks are Lilith-Fair-like declarations about finding your own path, defying expectations, and knowing yourself. Toss in a couple of snarky satires (“She’s Alright,” “Extraordinary”) and you’ve got an album with a spiky sensibility indeed.

Judith Owen’s idea of a making-up song, “Creatures of Habit,” talks more about licking wounds and learning to cope than about reconciliation; “Ruby Red Lips” takes a standard honky-tonk title and twists it into a not-so-thinly veiled threat. “Let’s Hear It For Love” defines love as quintessentially illogical:


It's curious, it's mysterious, it makes you furious,
The places where you find love
There's no plan, it's a man, it's a woman
It's heaven and it's human and there's nothing better going
It's the taste of danger, it's sex with a stranger
It's the last man on earth, it's a dog in a manger
So let's hear it.. for love

If gospel-tinged anthems like “I Promise You” and “Message From Heaven” come off as perfunctory, Owen hits a confident groove with the cabaret-like “Shine,” a slouchy number about a misfit daughter coming into her own (it’s worth noting that Owen’s father is an esteemed Welsh opera singer), and the country-rock waltz “Who’s That Girl,” a wry cautionary tale about jealousy. She winds up with a rousing pair of rockers, “Mother Mercy” and “Wide Road,” which – despite a little more orchestration than they really need – could hold their own alongside classic Carole King or Joni Mitchell tracks.

New isn’t exactly the right word for this album — most of it was written and recorded eight years ago, when Judith was still on Capitol’s Java Records label. When Capitol let her fall through the cracks (she’s since found a home on Courgette Records), that material went into limbo. Only now has Owen rescued them from undeserved retirement, though several tracks were re-recorded to reflect what eight years has added to her artistry.

The fact that Owen could still relate to those eight-year-old songs suggests how idiosyncratic her work is. When you follow your own muse instead of what everybody else is doing, you can afford to let material simmer for nearly a decade. Judith Owen may not be to everybody’s taste – that’s one dark view of human nature she’s packing – but her eclectic musical sound and biting lyrics push all the right buttons for me.

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About Holly Hughes