Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Joanna Connor - Best Of Me

That fidgety scraping sound you can hear?  That’s me scratching my head.  Why?  Well, because I’m mightily puzzled by this new album from Chicago blueser Joanna Connor, that’s why.
See, if you cast your mind back, you may recall that in 2021 Joanna Connor released 4801 South Indiana Avenue – an absolute belter of an album that grabbed the attention because, as I wrote at the time, Connor delivered rip-roaring slide guitar and sang with Joplin-esque abandon.  But if 4801 was a passionate, feral creature, Best Of Me is more of a drowsy house cat.
True, a few tracks here are invested with proper drive and rock’n’roll conviction.  ‘Highway Child’ is tootling Texas-style blues, on which Joe Bonamassa makes an appearance to tear things up a bit in tandem with a gritty, turbo-charged slide solo from Connor.  But the production feels thin
Joanna Connor - "Ouch!  That hurts!"
Pic by Allison Morgan
and the song pretty much fizzles out.  ‘Mercury Blues’, however, really cuts the mustard.  The only cover on the album, it’s a blast of boogie dating back to 1948 that’s propelled by some energetic skins-bashing from David Abbruzzese, while Connor herself lets loose with a strident vocal and some buzzing, fizzing slide guitar that really should be higher in the mix.  And the closing ‘Shine On’ rocks away merrily, with crisp drums and a tumbling, ear-catching riff, and if the melody and lyrics don’t exactly set the heather on fire the guitar soloing of Connor and the guesting Gary Hoey compensates in darting, quicksilver fashion.  Sadly, these grabbers are in the minority.
When ‘House Rules’ kicks the album off, it’s in a good-time soul-funk vein, with Connor’s snaky slide guitar playing second fiddle to a welter of flaring, parping horns.  From there they downshift into ‘Pain And Pleasure’, a cooler soul groove that features a metronome-clicking beat and stop-start bass and is, in spite of a swooping slide break from Connor, something of a non-event.  These songs are just about passable, but the same can’t be said of something like ‘All I Want Is You’, a horribly dated slice of soul weighed down by some dire, soppy lyrics.
There are some decent moments along the way, mind you.  ‘Best Of Me’ itself may be bland easy listening, but it develops an interesting rollercoaster-tinged riff and Connor adds a sensitive, swirling slide solo.  She takes that sensitivity further on the emotional mother-to-son ballad ‘I Lost You’, veering atmospherically from firefly flickering to taut sustain in a manner worthy of Gary Moore, augmented by subtle piano colourings from Dan Souvigny. Meanwhile the hip-twitching ‘Two Of A Kind’ is the best stab at funk here, Connor bringing a kinda sexy, girlish timbre to her vocal, and adding a bristling guitar solo while the rhythm section and horns strut their stuff to good effect.  Oh yeah, and Mike Zito turns up to enliven ‘Shadow Lover’ with some tasteful guitar work.
It pains me to mark Best Of Me down like this, because I expected so much more from Joanna Connor after 4801 South Indiana Avenue.  Of course, she wasn’t compelled to repeat that album’s formula of high-octane takes on a bundle of well-selected covers.  Still, if she’d explored different avenues here with the same intent and clarity, all might have been well.  But with the 10 original songs here, Connor and her bassist/co-writer Shaun Calloway have unfortunately come up short too often.  Fingers crossed this is just a bump in the road, and next time we really will get the best of Joanna Connor.
Best Of Me
 is released by Gulf Coast Records on 9 June.

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