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Album review: Shemekia Copeland's 'Never Going Back'

February 23, 2009 |  4:23 pm

Shemekia_2 With a recording career that began in 1998 at the unfathomable age of 19, Shemekia Copeland could've built a nice career on the blues-and-barbecue festival circuit on the basis of her Grand Canyon-filling voice alone. But after solid if not entirely unexpected album collaborations with Dr. John and Stax Records' Steve Cropper, Copeland is shaking things up with her fifth release, a gritty, socially conscious effort that gives that big voice something new to say.

Produced by Oliver Wood from the blues-folk duo the Wood Brothers (whose other half is Chris Wood, from the trio Medeski Martin and Wood), "Never Going Back" opens with the Copeland co-written "Sounds Like the Devil," a thick slice of slide-driven suspicion that sets the tone with recession-shaded barbs like "I ain't got healthcare . . . I can't even afford to die."

Elsewhere Chris Wood's roomy upright bass teams with John Medeski's B-3 to lend an intimate coffeehouse vibe to Copeland's breathy take on Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," but it's on the noirish epic "Never Going Back to Memphis" where Copeland digs the deepest. Spiked with an unhinged solo from frequent Tom Waits guitarist Marc Ribot, Copeland's voice curls around richly murderous details like "he kept a .45 in a Crown Royal bag."

Such gospel-blues burners as "Rise Up" and "Big Brand New Religion" show Copeland can still shake the rafters when she wants to, but the further she gets from where she's already been, the more rewarding this album is to follow.

--Chris Barton

Shemekia Copeland
"Never Going Back"
Three stars