Lisa Biales,
Belle of the Blues
(Big Song, 2013)

Belle of the Blues, the third of her recordings I've reviewed in this space in the past two years (previously, 11 August 2012 and 20 April 2013), testifies that Lisa Biales is nothing if not prolific. Her chosen mode of expression is the classic blues, or at least an updated form of them, "classic" being defined as the vaudeville approach fashioned by Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and others who loom large in the popular music of the early 20th century.

Biales' production preferences lean toward the acoustic, appropriately enough, as she practices her craft of bluesy saloon-style singing. She evinces a keen appreciation of a song's lyric and emotional content, though she rarely composes her own material. Seven of the 11 cuts are credited or co-credited to her friend and -- with Paul Hornsby -- producer EG Kight. "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home" is from the Clarence Williams circa 1920s songbook, and another is the Memphis Minnie classic "In My Girlish Days," while the updated lyrics are from the version by the late Phoebe Snow (uncredited).

Any Biales album is bound to satisfy, and Belle counts for no exception. When one reviews a blues disc, it is always, if uncomfortably, necessary to specify the artist's race (white in this instance) given the complicated, unhappy history of the blues in America. Biales addresses this issue in her songs, most directly in Dalton Roberts's "Black & White Blues," which points out, gracefully as opposed to clunkily, that white artists have always been drawn to the blues, citing the prominent examples of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Even better, "Peach Pickin' Mama" fashions a new blues on the Rodgers template.

If one were so inclined, one could lay out a case that Biales's fusion of blues and pop owes at least as much to Rodgers as to Bessie Smith. As with both, Biales cheerfully embraces the openly sexual, leavened with wit, in saucy numbers like "Trouble With a Capital 'T'"and the hard-R rated "Bad Girl." These two, which serve as the final cuts, are as close as Biales gets to rockin' electric r&b. In common with everything she does, however, they're offered purely on Biales' terms, which means restrained and all the more effective for it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 February 2014

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