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The Boston Phoenix Three of a Kind

Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, and Tracy Nelson mix it up

By Clea Simon

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Have you ever had a peanut-butter-strawberry-and-caramel-fudge sundae? More than once? Of course not, because once you're older than about eight, such a blending of flavors -- even of tastes that qualify as both "sweet" and "suitable for ice-cream toppings" -- tends to cancel out each's goodness with an excess of goop. Such, unfortunately, is the case with Sing It! (Rounder) a well-intentioned and often pleasant collaboration from Texas boogie-woogie pianist Marcia Ball, New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas, and Mother Earth herself, Tracy Nelson, that fails to bring out any of the true and strong flavors of which all of these women are capable.

Not to belabor the metaphor, but there are a few tasty scoops here. When the three trade off verses against the second-line parade rhythms of "If I Know You," their distinctive voices blend easily, breezy and relaxed. From a track like this, it's easy to see how the New Orleans radio-station benefit at which this disc was reportedly hatched could have been so much fun. Pounding out Joe Tex's "I Want To Do Everything for You" shows another way the concept could have worked. The piece is simple, which lets the playful, older-girl-group appeal of this combo come through. And though all three women are credited with vocals, the gospel-inflected Thomas takes the lead while the more pop-oriented white singers support the legend. Now that would make an album!

But the decision to package the three in a faked equality betrays the weakness in blanket labels. Yes, the idea of recording any of these blues-based artists in a New Orleans studio with the appropriate musicians could have been a good one, because, yes, these three are "roots music" singers and performers. But throwing them together as this disc has done disregards the depth and the difference in their respective roots, cutting each one short and grafting them all onto a generic pop stock that does none any service.

What's disheartening is how this compromise affects the majority of the tracks -- which are not primarily collaborations but rather a collection of featured solos, traded off variety-show style. "Love Maker," for example, is a Marcia Ball showpiece. Its lyrics are as randy as anything you'd expect from the Austin pianist who grew up listening to Katie Webster. But the music is just a repeated Muscle Shoals vamp that does little to stretch Ball's throaty voice. And it doesn't feature her piano. As she does on her most recent Rounder solo CD, Let Me Play with Your Poodle, Ball seems to be giving over the Professor Longhair-style piano-blues turf for easier thrills with double entendre pop -- and she plays on only three tracks of the trio CD. It's a bad move: a listen to her 1986 Rounder disc, Hot Tamale Baby (the title cut a killer cover of a Clifton Chenier hit), reveals a stylish player who may not have the ornamental range of a Longhair or a James Booker but does command a rollicking barrelhouse bounce and a Jerry Lee Lewis-like instinct for pounding on the right note at the right time. On 1989's Gatorhythms, she feminized Dr. John, making his "How You Carry On" swing by keeping the keyboards right up there with her easy Texas twang. Listening to these discs again reveals a rawer sound but also a hotter one.

Nelson, who since the psychedelic era has done her best work covering Thomas's tunes, serves as the lowest common denominator here, her tunes (like the ponderous "Please No More") providing a generic '60s-pop blues kind of base. Her singing still sounds uncannily like Thomas's, only slightly deeper, even muddy at times. As a backing voice, a harmonizer, she anchors the trio. But as a soloist, she's not Janis, and here she is outclassed.

Thomas fares best on this outing, digging into such tunes as the gospel-flavored "Yield Not to Temptation." Her simple, nearly spoken lovers' warning rides the rhythm and refuses to be smoothed over. Rising to the finale, pulling those gospel choruses out of her R&B past, she is the soul queen, without compromise. But even here, as her colleagues chime in on the "Hallelujah" rave-up back-up, the material fails her. The tambourine-shaking shout fest arrives too soon; Thomas has paid her dues, but this song hasn't earned the big ending. On a 30-year-old (but timeless) hit like "Break-a-Way" (re-released in 1996 on Razor & Tie's The Irma Thomas Collection), the climax comes just as quickly, heralded by tinny bells and an insistent parade-march rhythm, but the high-pitched payoff feels justified. The calmer, older Thomas of last year's Story of My Life (Rounder) relied more on soul than on gospel frenzy, but she sang with assurance, revisiting her New Orleans roots with pride. She didn't need a gimmick then, and next time out she would do better to persuade her colleagues to share a similar faith in themselves.


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