I suppose it’s some combination of her blues pedigree, her age, and her native talent. Shemekia Copeland is blessed with the ability to mix crunching blues-rock, traditional Memphis soul and Chicago blues and come up with something that sounds like today. Outskirts of Love, the new album by the noted blues singer (and daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland), packs plenty of excitement into a dozen songs over a tight three-quarters of an hour.
It sure doesn’t hurt that she has enlisted the likes of Robert Randolph, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Will Kimbrough, and, not least, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for this melange of tracks that span styles: hard-rocking blues, soul à la Solomon Burke, folk-blues with a social conscience, down-home roots courtesy of Jessie Mae Hemphill, and even country music (“nothin’ but the blues with a twang”).
The tricky thing about playing the blues is keeping it interesting over a long set of songs using one basic set of building blocks. Copeland brings to the effort a good deal more than her creamy, killer voice, which she deploys with firmly controlled power. Absorbing and speaking a variety of musical dialects, she lays out a landscape of emotions and smarts – with a wink.
The song selections derive from sources as varied as ZZ Top, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Albert King. A master of musical dialects, Copeland incorporates a sly afrobeat rhythm into her take on Johnny Copeland’s “Devil’s Hand” and a New Orleans hop into Jesse Winchester’s “Isn’t That So”; strips the swing from ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” turning it into rough chunks of deliberate blues-rock; and makes Hemphill’s bare-bones “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy” muddy and dangerous. And she slips all these right into the album’s flow.
Maybe most emblematic of Copeland’s approach on this album is what she and her band do with Albert King’s “Wrapped Up In Love Again.” Slowed down, but retaining its unorthodox backbeat and its accents, it’s both a tribute and an original statement – a perfect nugget of pure timeless blues, rocking and swinging and funking all at once. There are flashier numbers on the album, like the dark rape-payback story “Crossbone Beach” (my favorite of the album’s newer songs) and the title track with its Gibbons-esque guitar work. But “Wrapped Up In Love Again” might just be my favorite.
Outskirts of Love marks Shemekia Copeland’s return to Alligator Records. It comes out September 11 and is available for pre-order at the link below.