Lisa Biales,
Singing in My Soul
(Big Song Music, 2013)

No matter what it says here, Lisa Biales (pronounced Be-Alice) is not a singer-songwriter, as she's inexplicably identified in promotional material and elsewhere. She is, in fact, that ever rarer entity, the song interpreter, and to be treasured for it. On Singing in My Soul's 10 cuts, only one, "Magic Garden," is her own creation. The rest of the songs, with possibly an exception or two, are older than Biales herself.

I suppose I have to mention that she is white when I note that she focuses largely on vintage African-American vernacular music in its various 20th-century forms: vaudeville, pop, gospel, folk, blues. The title piece is associated with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as is the well-known "Strange Things Happening Every Day." The immortal songster Mississippi John Hurt co-wrote and recorded "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me" (to the melody of the folksong "Waiting for a Train," best known in the Jimmie Rodgers version) in 1928. Though credited (I presume) for legal purposes to W.C. Handy, "Careless Love" is just one branch on an old and expansive tree of traditional songs.

The Ohio-based Biales sings these with the backing of the Paris Blues Band, which is not a thundering blues-rock outfit but a soft-spoken oldtime jazz ensemble. Other capable acoustic, mostly string musicians show up here and there to fill out the sound, but the emphasis is always, as it ought to be, on Biales's engaging way of communicating a song.

So, to the question: How is this different from any of Maria Muldaur's acoustic albums? You might answer with another question: You got a problem with Maria Muldaur's acoustic albums? Lots of artists sound something like somebody else, and that doesn't mean they aren't worth hearing. Though they have musical interests and approaches in common, Biales has her own voice, literally and figuratively. Sufficient, I should think, that one is unlikely to mistake her and Muldaur for clones. I defy anyone possessed of normal good sense to find fault with a work so eminently likable as Singing in My Soul.

We can wish, however, that it were longer than 31 minutes. On the other hand, as is not the case with some albums I hear, that's not at all the same thing as wishing it were shorter.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 April 2013

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