Recording information: Village Recorders, West L.A.
Photographer: Mike Prior.
Fans of guitar master Joe Bonamassa will be delighted that 2011 was such a prolific year in his career. First came the fine, rootsy Dust Bowl, then 2, the second chapter in his Black Country Communion project's catalog. Don't Explain, a collection of soul, blues, and jazz-oriented covers in collaboration with vocal firebrand Beth Hart marks his third entry this year. The ten-song set of blues and soul is a logical extension of her vocal contribution to "No Love on the Street" from Dust Bowl. Opening is a thoroughly raucous contemporary blues reading of Ray Charles' "Sinner's Prayer," followed by a quirky version of Tom Waits' "Chocolate Jesus," and an unusual cover of contemporary jazz-pop singer/songwriter Melody Gardot's "You Heart Is as Black as Night." On this cut, a string orchestra adds a touch of perversity; it offers the impression of a femme fatale singing a Brecht-Weill number in a smoky cabaret in front of a moody string orchestra, buoyed by a brooding electric blues quintet. "For My Friends," a Bill Withers' tune, is a big, nasty, jagged blues number that keeps the funky groove intact. The title track, a number closely associated with Billie Holiday, falls flat. Hart tries too hard to employ Holiday's phrasing, the string orchestrations are overblown, and Bonamassa's crew is too reverent. This formula also mars the remake of Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way" that closes the set. Far better are readings of Etta James' signatories "I'd Rather Go Blind," and "Something's Got a Hold on Me." Hart's emotive, throaty delivery is perfectly suited to both songs, and she resists trying to ape James' phrasing. Since they follow one another directly, the musical difference between them also showcase's Hart's diverse abilities. The former is a soul burner, the latter a gospel blues. Bonamassa and band accent her every phrase with requisite rowdiness, sting, and grit. The pair's only vocal collaboration is a burning read of Delaney & Bonnie's "Well, Well." With Anton Fig's breaks and rim shots underscoring Arlan Scheirbaum's electric piano fills, Bonamassa's burning leads, the chunky, rhythmic foundation from guitarist Blondie Chaplin, and Carmine Rojas' bassline, Hart and the lead guitarist trade whip-smart call and response vocals with enough raw country-soul to bring the song to a new audience. While not a perfect recording, Don't Explain is a good one, whose strengths are numerous enough to warrant a second go round. ~Thom Jurek