On her new album Promise of a New Day Ruthie Foster artfully walks a line, as she has for years, that’s too fine for almost anyone else: the line between the blues, soul and gospel traditions on the one hand, and folk-pop on the other.
Through these 12 songs, seven of them written or co-written by Foster, her strong, honeyed voice coasts over waves of traditional-sounding R&B, blues and timeless pop, all steeled by the gospel music that’s one of her strongest roots and woven together by bassist extraordinaire Meshell Ndegeocello who produced (and plays on) the album.
“My Kinda Lover,” an original, could almost be a lost Sam and Dave hit, cut back to a single voice. It flows into a gorgeous version of the Staple Singers’ “The Ghetto,” which is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Willie King’s “Second Coming” needs but a single chord to evoke the protest music of the 1960s, while “It Might Not Be Right,” by Foster and William Bell, addresses gay marriage in a way that’s quite modern for the blues and gospels traditions, though the lyrics read more like they’re out of the uncertain Will and Grace era than the legal-in-XX-states 2010s.
The soulful, crystalline pop of “Singing the Blues” and “Learning to Fly” (not the Tom Petty hit but a Foster original) remind me of the great sound of Bonnie Raitt’s pop renaissance of 25 years ago, and the latter song’s piano groove bears a distant echo of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.” (Coincidentally, one of Bonnie Raitt’s biggest hits of that era was Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love.”) The creamy-smooth soul of “Believe” also sounds a bit like Bonnie Raitt, plus a jazzy touch of Stevie Wonder.
Foster cuts it all back to the bone in the a capella “Brand New Day,” which makes its concise inspirational point with no need of chord changes. If its word choice doesn’t make total logic, its sound is smooth and cool as ice. “Love heals, and love lives, and time will rebuild a brand new day.”
The album closes with the understated and beautiful love ballad “Complicated Love” and Toshi Reagon’s wispy “New” featuring Reagon herself. While there’s not much structure to “New”, Ndegeocello’s aural imagination and Foster’s perfectly calibrated voice make it powerfully atmospheric. “Somebody’s got to tell the truth.” And that’s just what Foster does throughout this kaleidoscope of an album. “Been in an out of soul / Even rock and roll / But a bit of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland never never gets old,” she sings in “Singing the Blues,” a song in the great tradition of tributes to a style written in a different style (think “Sultans of Swing”). (True blues charges in with “Let Me Know,” motored by Doyle Bramhall II’s guitar.)
What Ruthie Foster does on this disc won’t get old either, because it’s straight from a generous heart steeped in tradition but with a sensibility all its own.