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The Truth According to
Artist: Ruthie Foster
Label: Proper Records
Time: 11 Tracks / 46 mins
Ruthie Foster’s aptly titled Phenomenal album was one of the most striking records I heard from 2007 – all gospel-soul, but with a distinct and fascinating psychedelic-folk edge. The tunes were pretty nifty, too. It was one of those releases that beg the question, “How do you follow up something like this?”
The answer turns out to be: more of the same, but different. Her voice is still earthy, impassioned gospel-soul-blues, but this one has a lighter, more varied mood. The gospel-for-hippies tag doesn’t hang so comfortably from this one. She has veered off in more of a blues direction, and it works very well. I have seen criticism of this disc for being too varied in style, but I view its variety as a definite strength. That voice holds all the different hues together very nicely, and when you have blues in your DNA, then bringing it out as a main strand is the right thing to do.
This disc may not quite have the impact of its predecessor, either because the element of surprise is gone, the production is a little more relaxed, or because the listener now expects so much. All are valid comments, but that is not in any way to put the disc down – we are following a five-star release here! Although it is less rich, I think I actually enjoy it a little more.
The Texas singer’s blues again reflects the influence of her mentor-friend-collaborator Eric Bibb, with plenty of space, and often a slightly clean guitar sound; with Foster, the grit comes from that voice, which knows how to ache and yearn. “Tears of Pain” is as slow and hurting as the title suggests; while on “Joy on the Other Side” she is just accompanied by slide Dobro and a shuffling tambourine. (Oh, and she has the decency to wake up one morning feeling bad at least once, just to keep the traditionalists happy...)
The title track hangs on a dirty blues riff, and is probably the most striking piece. With the backing organ work, it sounds a bit like something that would fit onto Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard. It’s also great to hear the solos and jamming that give Foster’s voice the odd break. Often, when people have a great voice, there’s little to balance it out.
When this disc is not playing blues, it tends towards an authentic late ‘60s / early ‘70s sound. “You Keep Me (Hangin’ On) sounds like it is going to go into Stevie Wonder’s “Just Enough for the City”, but veers off in a different direction at the last minute, but is also set apart by the insistent guitar rhythm. There is the reggae of “I Really Love You,” which is a clear reminder that the organist Charles Hodges played for Ann Peebles, as well as Al Green. You could easily spend all this song just listening to the guitar playing.
The musicianship is exceptional throughout the disc: guitarist Robben Ford (Dylan, Joni Mitchell) brings out every blues nuance you can imagine at some point across the disc; Jim Dickinson (Stones, Dylan, Aretha) adds keyboards; and if it’s not enough that there are many of the same musicians who played for Isaac Hayes (and in the same studio), then enjoy the underlining presence of the legendary (and still alive!) Memphis Horns, who help achieve that timeless feel.
Spiritually, this is a vague one. The whole disc has a seam of faith words running through it (we get the River Jordan, “Joy on the Other Side,” and the idea of our dues being paid in full) but it sounds second-hand, like she has grown up in the church and is using its imagery, but always stopping short of name-checking the God who makes it all possible. The “truth” of the title track is merely the nebulous “Truth is where you are”.
Overall, this is a slightly more relaxed collection, with a lighter pace and some guitar work in particular that matches the strength of Foster’s voice. It is immensely playable, with every track bringing something new to the table; and I am very happy to recommend Ruthie Foster for two discs in a row.