It seems strangely appropriate that this album should be coming out this year — which also heralds the 50th birthday of Motown Records — because if anyone has taken on the mantle of soul singer extraordinaire for the 21st century, then it’s the phenomenal Ruthie Foster – something that was, not coincidentally, the title of her last album.
Foster has been kicking up a storm in her home state of Texas for a fair wee while now, with her winning combination of soul, classic R’n'B, and folk and blues. It’s surely only a matter of when, rather than if, she breaks internationally. From the opening, classic soul blast of “Stone Love,” through the big ballad “When It Don’t Come Easy,” and into the dynamic blues of “Truth!” this album just keeps on delivering.
Hailing from a family of gospel singers, Foster studied music at university before taking the unusual route of touring with the US Navy band, Pride. Then there was an abortive period with Atlantic Records, who tried to mould her into a hybrid of Anita Baker-meets-Tracy Chapman before she broke free and headed out on the road playing at just about every folk club in North America.
She’s been making albums since 1997, when her debut Full Circle came out, releasing Crossover before signing for Houston’s Blue Corn Records, which has seen another three excellent releases – Runaway Soul and the live album Stages, prior to the aforementioned The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.
Of course, it’s no real surprise that the musical performances are straight out of the top drawer. When you have the likes of former Black Crowe’s guitarist Robben Ford popping in to lay down some steaming hot lines, you know you’re in for a treat. Add in a whole pile of Memphis magic, courtesy of keyboards man, Jim Dickinson, who’s worked with, well, everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones, and a funked-up dose of the Memphis Horns, and you’re set up for an inspirational time.
The coup de grace, though, are the vocals of Foster herself. She has that rare skill of being able to go from a whisper to a scream without losing any of the warm, welcoming glow of her remarkable voice. Frame it in slow blues, like Nickel And A Nail, then sit back and prepare to be blown away. There’s also some room for some funky Southern soul, and Dues Paid In Full, which comes punctuated with brass blasts courtesy of Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns, is one of the album’s highlights.
The album has a cocooning feel, beautifully produced by Chris Goldsmith, who has worked with the Blind Boys Of Alabama, and I can just imagine the acoustic blues of Joy On The Other Side being given the full gospel treatment. The album finishes up with a sweet up-tempo groove called Thanks For The Joy, but it’s me who should be thanking Foster for putting a little joy into my life.