I had high hopes for this album, I really did. The notion that Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa were reprising a collection of “soul gems” sounded promising – a chance for Bonamassa to lay back and swing a bit after the Stürm und Drang of the latest Black Country Communion affair, allied to the light touch and reined in vibrato Hart showed on her last album Fire On The Floor.
Unfortunately Black Coffee doesn’t deliver on those expectations. Or perhaps I should say it doesn’t match my conception of what they were intending. Not that it’s a bad album, though it’s not a great one either. But it draws on a wider range of styles than soul – sometimes to good effect, sometimes less so.
The highlights actually lie in jazz-inflected songs like ‘Lullabye Of The Leaves’ and ‘Why Don’t You Do It Right’. The latter is a smoky ballad, originally recorded by Ella Fitzgerald,
and Hart does a good job of evoking that mood, aided by some rippling piano from
the inevitable Reese Wynans and a subtle solo from Bonamassa. The latter, a Kansas Joe McCoy song tackled
by Peggy Lee back in the Forties, is finger-snapping jazz, with slinky,
swinging horns and rinky-dink piano from Wynans, with both Hart and Bonamassa
catching the easy-going mood.
|He's behind you, Beth!|
The closing couple of tracks may be less in jazz mode, but carry a similarly coherent vibe. ‘Soul On Fire’ is a bit of a torch song, with Hart keeping her vibrato on a leash and JoBo exercising similar restraint, although he can’t resist firing off a few clusters of unnecessary notes. The same is true of his brief but steely solo on ‘Addicted’, a laid back, almost reggae like shuffle on which Hart essays a suitably dreamy vocal.
None of the above are raves, but at least they develop a coherent mood. Etta James’ ‘Damn Your Eyes’ has a different, tense feel to it, with Hart getting soulful to the strains of a strong riff, backed up by piano chords and organ swells from Wynans, stabs of horn punctuation, and an effective, urgent solo from Bonamassa.
Those are the highlights though, other songs hanging off them in an unfocussed fashion. The opener, Edwin Starr’s ‘Give It Everything You Got’ has soul food ingredients in the form of the horns, backing vox, and handclaps, and the guitar interplay with (I think) Michael Rhodes’ bass is pleasing. But JB’s warped wah-wah intro and even heavier solo just sound incongruous. Meanwhile the title track, from the Ike and Tina Turner catalogue, is essentially a low key arrangement over which Hart gets her wail on – and this is purely a matter of personal preference, but that quavering vibrato she is wont to adopt does precisely zip for me.
‘Saved’ is high tempo, honking pseudo-gospel that isn’t as funny as it thinks, though Anton Fig’s train-track drum pattern is appealing. And ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ is simply redundant – give me Howlin’ Wolf any time, or even Frank Frost and Sam Carr.
Some pleasing moments then, and the musicianship is of course top notch, but ultimately the whole is less than the sum of its parts. All things considered, Black Coffee isn’t so much a rich, dark soulful brew as a half-and-half.
Black Coffee is released by Provogue Records on 26 January.