Janiva Magness has emerged as perhaps the biggest contemporary female performer on the blues circuit over the past four years. The Devil Is An Angel, Too is her follow-up to the critically acclaimed, award-winning 2008 release What Love Will Do.
The first 30 seconds of the title track are revelatory. They validate my criticisms of Do I Move You? and provide some degree of confidence that Devil will be a different story, and for the most part it is. Magness’ voice has changed very little from previous outings but the music, production, and arrangement on the title track have and the difference is startling. The chemical reaction on Move didn’t spark and catch fire. The rootsy, nocturnal sounds on “Devil” are a much better match for her and some genuine heat is generated.
“Save Me” is a wonderful, understated performance filled with warmth, tenderness, and vulnerability that is heartbreaking and spellbinding. The yearning and need in her vocal is superlative and the arrangement gives a touch of lush sweetness while maintaining the stripped, rootsy sound heard elsewhere. This is the kind of lament Magness interprets best.
Magness takes some risks with song selection rather than filling the album with 10 more songs just like “Save Me” and the results are mixed. She takes a stab at “Feelin’ Good,” a standard originally written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for a 1964 musical and everyone from Nina Simone to George Michael and My Brightest Diamond has covered it. Magness gives it a shot and does a fine job with it. Her pacing is a little on the quick side, allowing her to sing fluidly without giving in to the temptation to overdo it and it pays off. She opens a capella before acoustic guitar-led accompaniment kicks in. This isn’t the definitive version of the song but it’s respectable and better suited for her than might be immediately obvious.
Magness is a capable vocalist who rarely falters when the arrangement and material are good and that is the case for a majority of Devil but one mark of a transcendent vocalist is hearing them flourish even when the material is weaker. She isn’t there yet. The formula on the record is right for her but there aren’t enough variations on it over the course of it to keep things from becoming static. The Devil Is An Angel, Too is a strong, assured record from a skilled vocalist and is a large step closer to being the classic record she may yet have in her.