Black Coffee, the new album from powerhouse singer Beth Hart and blues-rock guitarist extraordinaire Joe Bonamassa is all about hard-hitting, rocking soul music. A collection of (mostly) not-so-familiar songs by familiar artists, its earthy, electrified reinventions breathe new life into old numbers while giving the guitarist and the singer plenty of room to show off, all within icy-tight arrangements.
A fiery no-holds-barred take on Edgar Winter’s “Give It Everything You Got” opens the album. A clawing guitar riff introduces a soul barrage fueled by steely horns and glistening backing vocals. Equally good is Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes,” with Hart’s bluesy belt dripping with passion.
The title track, originally by Ike and Tina Turner and covered by Humble Pie in the 1970s, wasn’t much of a song to begin with, and the ensemble here piles on the sound and fury to mostly empty effect. It’s one of the few places where the album fails to connect solidly. On the other hand, it provides a nice set-up for one of the most surprising and effective tracks, “Lullaby of the Leaves.” Written for Broadway in the early 1930s and recorded beautifully by Ella Fitzgerald in 1964, the ballad moves Hart into smoky torch-song territory, her low velvety tones choked with sublimated pain. It then grows into a dramatic rock tour-de-force as Bonamassa delivers a guitar solo over a rhythmic development reminiscent of Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses.”
“Why Don’t You Do It Right” goes back almost as far. A hit for Peggy Lee in 1941, it re-emerges swinging like a Joe Jackson revival amid swirls of blues-rock guitar from Bonamassa, who seems even more inspired than usual. Then – why not? – it’s polka time, and on the horn-driven “Saved,” originally done by LaVern Baker, all the musicians sound like they’re having the kind of delirious fun Janis Joplin had on her earliest recordings.
The album’s best-known song, “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” gets a smooth Chicago-blues interpretation and more gravitas than it can bear. A heavy arrangement doesn’t do much for a second LaVern Baker tune, “Soul on Fire.” But on Lucinda Williams’ “Joy,” Hart sings her heart out over an electronic-style track. The arrangement brushes a patina of prog-rock over Williams’ trademark minimalism. Joyful it’s not – and it’s just right for the song.
The album closes with the obscure “Addicted,” copped from Austrian electronic trio Waldeck and given a dark, pop-electronic sheen. Muted vocals from Hart suggest Adele at her grimmest. It’s a weird ending to an album loaded with brilliant energy and musicianship and a fair number of surprises. Together these 10 tracks reinforce Bonamassa’s versatility and Hart’s status as one of our era’s supreme blueswomen. They’re a match made someplace pretty darned close to heaven.
Black Coffee, out January 26, 2018, is available now for pre-order.