Ruthie Foster’s powerhouse new album Joy Comes Back presents the genre-muddling blues/soul/rock/folk singer in the deepest sweet spot of her sizzling game. Her last album, Promise of a Brand New Day, was produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, who encouraged Foster to focus on songwriting. That one was good, but the new set is a greater triumph, matching Foster’s honeyed voice with a varied batch of songs by top talents ranging from Mississippi John Hurt to The Weepies’ Deb Talan to Black Sabbath.
The opener, “What Are You Listening To?” is a brilliant midtempo soul number by Chris Stapleton that puts Foster’s assured vocals and thoughtful sensibility at center stage, where it stays for the duration of the album. Power of a different kind streams through the tight feminist rocker “Working Woman” by Grace Pettis: “When you gotta get it done, call the working woman…This country’s run by the working woman.”
Derek Trucks adds tasteful slide guitar to the title track, an old-timey, gospel-flavored but not tiresomely religious number by Sean Staples. Here producer Daniel Barrett slides Foster’s vocals into a drunken gumbo of guitars, piano and organ, upright bass and “sloppy” percussion. Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues” is another nod to the old days, and here, as usual, Foster matches her singing style to the tradition and feel of the material, feathering it up just right for the jaunty song.
The only Foster original on the album, the light-soul “Open Sky,” is one of her best compositions, evoking the great 1970s grooves and pop-blues styles of both Marvin Gaye and Carly Simon, her voice soaring at the end like a contented Aretha. In the same vein is a straightforward “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever,” written for the Four Tops by Ivy Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder.
A deliberate but fun take on Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” leans heavily on Simon Wallace’s harmonica and Foster’s own Dobro. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the slow, simple build of “Abraham,” which put me in mind of Etta James’s version of “Out of the Rain.” But here, again, Foster softens her delivery into a folky beam of pale light before the rainbow of vocal harmonies enters. “When I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Those lyrics, by Shawnee Kilgore, Austin folk singer-songwriter and Joss Whedon collaborator, build to a triumphant climax that Foster takes all the way to the horizon.
Brilliantly chosen and produced, beautifully played, and beautifully sung, the songs of Joy Comes Back give us Ruthie Foster at her absolute best. And that’s absolutely fine.