Album review: ‘The Muscle Shoals Sessions,’ Amy Black
I should probably mention that I’m a complete sucker for the country soul that came out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and to which Amy Black pays tribute on her latest, “The Muscle Shoals Sessions” (Reuben Records). But I can’t imagine anyone not getting caught up in this engaging collection, which mixes perfectly chosen covers with originals that evoke that classic sound without aping it.
A lot of artists can’t pull off period songs without sounding like they just got back from the Karaoke bar, but Black comes right out of the gate with a brilliant, smoky blues cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” that declares her intention to own these tracks, or at least make them fully hers while she’s borrowing them. Even Black’s version of “You Left the Water Running,” which is fairly faithful to Wilson Pickett’s 1967 arrangement, brings a girl-group verve that’s all her own and that perfectly complements the honking horn section.
Her boldest cover choice is probably “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the gospel nugget Bob Dylan recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1979. It’s maybe a little too reverent to Dylan’s original -- Bob tends to have that effect on people -- but with Black’s slow-burn delivery and Will Kimbrough’s potent guitar work, in concert with Staples Singers-esqe background vocals from Ann and Regina McCrary, it still packs a soulful punch.
What makes “The Muscles Shoals Session” more than a tribute disc, though, is its inclusion of three stellar Black originals, which actually make up the backbone of the album. The sultry, sassy “Woman On Fire” is a highlight, combining the studio’s trademark country-soul grit with a winking delivery and clever lyrics: “If you keep this up there’ll be nothing left,” she sings to the source of the titular conflagration, “just a pile of ashes in a party dress.”
“Get To Me,” a smoky R&B track that has Black in self-denial mode about an irresistible suitor, is buoyed by the great Spooner Oldham’s spooky organ work and Bryan Owings’ mesmerizing percussion. And on “Please Don’t Give Up On Me,” perhaps the album’s standout track, Black takes full advantage of Charles Rose’s stellar horn arrangement, offering up a stunning soul gem that’s equal parts twangy torch song and slow-dance masterpiece.
“The Muscle Shoals Sessions” is definitely a detour for Black, particularly coming after 2014’s “This Is Home,” which showcased some of the most riveting and heartfelt country songs released that year. This disc, which serves as a tribute to the formative sounds that shaped Black’s Alabama youth, is more on the level of a fun departure. And given how charming the outcome, who can fault her for taking it?
Peter Chianca writes Pete’s Pop Culture, Parenting & Pets Blog at northofboston.wickedlocal.com/section/blogs. Follow Peter Chianca on Twitter at @pchianca or email him at email@example.com.