First-time listeners to the opening bars of Lisa Mills’ second release can be forgiven for thinking they’re hearing a new one from Bonnie Raitt. But as “Tennessee Tears” kicks off the album, in short order it’s clear Raitt and Mills may indeed be soul sisters, but Mills has something uniquely special going on. In part, she seems to have super-chargers in her pipes, a fiery furnace giving her voice a raw power akin to ladies like Janis Joplin and Marsha Ball. In addition, she also has one heck of a band backing her.
Hailing from Mississippi and Alabama, Mills is about as steeped in Memphis blues and Muscle Shoals soul and gospel as you can get. Ironically, she had to go to Europe to start building her reputation. As a result, her new collection is something of a trans-Atlantic hybrid, at least in terms of musicianship. Again with irony, it was in the U.K. where Mills was able to assemble the hottest session band since Booker T. and the MGs. Working in a “vintage analogue” studio where many of the 10 tracks were recorded live, Mills and the boys are tight, precise, and often adventurous in their smooth, sophisticated Southern rhythms.
On guitar is the always reliable Andy Fairweather Low. He not only has the licks to give the songs texture and fire, but he essentially serves as a second voice for every track. From start to finish, Mills is smoldering and gritty; Low mirrors her every move and mood. New Orleans drummer Eric Heigle lays down some unexpected, tricky time signatures. His sound benefits from some of the best drum mixing and mic placement I’ve ever heard. Grounding the primary musicians is double-bassist and co-producer Ian Jennings, a long-time collaborator of Mills. A few tracks also feature the horns of Nick Payn (saxophones) and Matt Winch (trumpet and flugelhorn).
Unlike typical albums in the roots tradition, opener “Tennessee Tears” isn’t a fast-paced rocker or jumper but is rather, like most of the songs to follow, a scorching blues wail. Clever drumming distinguishes the Memphis soul of “Keep On Smiling” just as Low’s fluid but rough-edged guitar drives the slow, sweet title track. “My Happy Song” isn’t happy, of course, but instead is an old, old-fashioned torch song. Past listeners have compared Mills to Otis Redding, and her cover of his classic “These Arms of Mine” certainly gives credence to the claim.
Mills also draws from the country well, but not the breed of commercially canned Nashville country heard in recent years. She looks further south in the “Blue Guitars Of Texas,” goes country-rock in “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and the full band clearly has fun messing around with the raw stomper, “Why Do I Still Love You?” Nashville and contemporary times seem miles and miles from the Mississippi Delta flavored “Countryside of Life.” This one might have the lyrics you’d expect of Top 40 country, but its blues is the real deal. Speaking of radio, unless I miss my guess, the album’s closer, “Someone Very Close,” is destined for the most airplay. it’s a crossover song suitable for both country and rock charts. Not only does it bend genres, but it also contains all the ingredients you’d hope for in a hit single with a distinctive approach.
Whatever song you hear first, though, the important thing is to hear Lisa Mills. While her voice is full of power and the band is slick as greased lightening, most of the tempos are slow to middling, which means this set is for sitting back and absorbing a voice you won’t believe you haven’t heard before, and a band you hope you’ll hear again.