Joan Armatrading: Into The Blues (429 Records)

RECORDING Into The Blues, writes Joan Armatrading on the back sleeve of her first-ever blues album, “has given me so much pleasure,” and that pleasure is evident in the grooves. But that doesn’t make it a particularly good blues album or even one of the more notable entries in a discography that stretches back more than 30 years.

It’s a fairly erratic and mostly tepid affair, jumping around from the autobiographical ‘Mama Papa’, one of the more poignant tracks, to the borderline-moronic ‘Deep Down’, which consists almost entirely of the title phrase repeated ad infinitum over an equally repetitive riff. While no one would claim that a successful blues tune requires profundity in the lyrical content, the problem with too many of Armatrading’s compositions here, as well as her production, is that it is not worthy of her proven talent. She’s at her most viable here as a writer when she covers ground she’s already displayed she can handle with panache, as in the naked emotions of ‘Liza’, ‘Empty Highway’ and ‘Baby Blue Eyes’. But when she turns in a marginal track like ‘My Baby’s Gone (Come Back Baby)’, it doesn’t become her: Lightnin’ Hopkins singing ‘Come Back Baby’ is one thing, but on Armatrading lines as sophomoric as “Don’t you know I can’t live without you” and “My baby’s gone/My baby’s gone away” sound disingenuous. Perhaps someone of Armatrading’s caliber might have gotten away with faux blues lyrics if they were placed into meatier contexts, but all too often Armatrading’s melodies and guitar riffs — she plays all instruments on the record except for drums and percussion — are out of the Blues 101 songbook, uninspired mimics of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and the like. Some of the most successful tracks here are, in fact, the least bluesy, for example the gospelized ‘Secular Songs’ and the countrified, mandolin-driven ‘Baby Blue Eyes’. Armatrading is an important singer-songwriter with a soulful touch, but as much as she might have enjoyed cutting a blues album, Into The Blues only proves that the genre is not her forte.

© Jeff Tamarkin, 2007

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