Lisa Mills,
Tempered in Fire
(independent, 2011)

Boy Wells,
Blue Skies Calling
(Marcel Marsupial, 2011)

While Mississippi-born Alabama resident Lisa Mills has absorbed the r&b, rock and country of the Deep South, Tempered in Fire comes out of a studio in Kent, England. You wouldn't know that, or maybe you would, since non-Americans have long been drawn to American pop's roots side -- typically the first thing to get deep-sixed at producers' hands in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. Here, crisp, sharp-edged settings give Mills's deep-throated singing the requisite kick and purr to deliver 10 uncluttered, well-picked songs, only two of which bear Mills's (co-)writing credits.

One thing nobody could dispute: Mills's uncompromising way of channeling emotion. Distress set to melody is rarely communicated as rawly as Mills manages it in her reading of George Borowski's terrific "Someone Very Close" or as morosely as in her and Hoy Lindsey's "My Happy Song." And if country radio hadn't given itself over to dreck, the blues-and-country hybrid "Tennessee Tears" (written by Beverly Jo Scott) would be on heavy rotation and wafting through your ears nearly every time you turned on the dial. Once upon a time you could hear its equivalent courtesy of Brenda Lee, Lacy J. Dalton, Becky Hobbs and few other country acts -- nearly all faded and forgotten -- boasting r&b and black-gospel influences.

On the other hand, the sly -- or not so sly, once you catch the joke -- eroticism of "Countryside of Life" (Maurice R. Hirsch) is right out of the blues' affection for feigned innocence. It's my most favored cut, just surpassing the tuneful celebration "Blue Guitars of Texas" (Borowski), on one outstanding album on which pleasures abound.

Blue Skies Calling is another adventurous hybrid, if anything even more so. Boy Wells, the stage name of guitarist Mark Schultz, is a protege of the late six-string cult hero Danny Gatton. Now ensconced in Texas, Schultz grew up in the D.C. area, itself home to roots sounds from blues to bluegrass and all stops between.

Not just another bluesman -- not, of course, that there's anything wrong with being "just" a bluesman -- Schultz's travels through Blue Skies have him visiting jazz (in the gorgeously atmospheric, horn-washed "Marcel Marsupial"), acoustic-guitar instrumental (the lilting "Tova") and even something approximating bluegrass ("Tin Winter" and "Traveler"). Stylistically, the title song conjures up pure ramblin'-man countrified Texas folk, as does the comparably dust-blown "Broke Down." "Love in Vain," however, is not the Robert Johnson number. On the other hand, Johnson could have written "Devil's Backbone Blues."

The reach to which Schultz's range, ambition and talent drive him never exceeds his grasp, if we may judge from what's in Blue Skies' grooves. Just as impressively, all of the songs and tunes are originals.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 February 2012

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