Thursday, November 1, 2012

Beverly McClellan - Fear Nothing: Labels Be Damned Brilliance

Beverly McClellan's Fear Nothing is an auspicious record that will set her on her way to solo stardom. It's my understanding that she has experienced great success via the television show, The Voice, but I wouldn't know anything about that. I haven't watched television for many years, but I do listen to Steve Vai.

McClellan first crossed my radar several months ago when I heard her belting John The Revelator on Vai's outstanding album, The Story of Light. Her explosive power, soul, and tone immediately grabbed me, and I set off to find some liner notes. One of the great frustrations of writing about music these days is that in a world of digital delivery, there are seldom cases wherein I get to see who plays what besides the artists name. Not to worry, I love calling whoever I need to call to find out, so as to give credit where credit is due.

So, my search reveals the voice that knocked me off my chair was Beverly McClellan - no sooner do I find this nugget of information than I get a note from publicist Lauren Archer, asking me to give a listen to this incredible new album got it, Beverly McClellan. This is being made all to easy, and I'm cool with that. I dearly love PR people that get things done and take care of their clients, and Lauren is a great one. Like I said, credit where credit is due.

Fear Nothing is a big, robust, tuneful, and exciting record - McClellan could read the damned phone book and make it sound like magic - she has a voice like a freight train, but she can also finesse a tune, and phrase as smoothly as a veteran jazzer. There's voodoo in this voice - a type of magic that makes good on the promise that  anything is possible, if you're true to your heart.

I See Love is a spicy blend of bass and drums right from the start - it sounds a little familiar, and sure enough it's a couple of greats doing the rhythm work over which our star weaves her spell. Tony Braunagal is a drummer I've been listening to since the '70s when he was working with Paul Kossoff in Crawler, and Hutch Hutchinson is one of the best and most recorded bassists in history. You'll probably best remember them as the section that elevated Bonnie Raitt to superstardom in the mid '80s. Mind you, Beverly McClellan is the star here, and her writing and singing are superb - I just want to let you know what kind of talent her talent has managed to attract. This is a great opening number, and it let's you know what you're in for, and it's a great trip.

McClellan is no new kid on the block, she had five albums under her belt before this one, and it shows. Lyin' To is straight out of the Carole King school of songwriting, and wouldn't sound out of place as an outtake from Tapestry - yeah, it's that good. Her phrasing is amazing - I'm on my fifth, or sixth listening, and I'm still tracing back over my steps to hear some lines again, and again. Jimmy Pugh has been Robert Cray's keyboard player since 1989, and as I said when I reviewed Cray's last record, he might be the best ivory tickler in the industry right now.

It Ain't Me sails in smoothly on a cloud of vibrato guitar and electric piano, stepping up to some very smooth funk when McClellen brings in the first verse. Everything here is an early take, caught mostly live by producer David Z (Prince, Billy Idol, Buddy Guy), and the experience of the players makes for an exquisite walk through what sounds like the encyclopedia of soul.

I'm glad that McClellan has worked out her demons - she's so damned soulful, that if I didn't know she had her shit together, I'd worry about her. Nobody's Fault But Mine is cut from the cloth of jazz's greatest voices, and most women who can sell soul like this pay for it with their's. The guitars of ace producer/guitarists Josh Sklair (two decades as Etta James's musical director and producer), and long time McClellan foil Billy Vasquez sound like they've been playing together all their lives instead of days. Still, it's McClellan that amazes with the most regularity, and in this group, that speaks volumes. This one is an instant classic - it'll be getting spun 40 years from now.

I Can't Hide Me is  a juke joint jumper, with Braunagal staying ahead of the guitars by a hair, and Hutchison's percolating, pumping bass providing the perfect springboard for the singer's gymnastics. Pure blues power, and some ceiling high swoops power this one. This has Grammy written all over it, and while I'm not big on awards stuff this is deserving.

Every song on this record sounds like yet another chapter of a good book, this is some of the best lyrical content I've heard since Melissa Etheridge's early works. I almost hate to say that, not giving a shit about and hoping to avoid the whole lesbian angle - this is brilliant, no matter what the context. Great material about relationships is tricky territory for a lyricist, and Beverly is a master. Personal, yet universal. Well Wondered, indeed.

Love Will Find A Way Out reminds me of the wonderful writing of John Hiatt - in trouble, but always with hope. I love a record that has me straining between the brilliance of the band and the vocals. This sounds like everyone had a great time making the record, and this gives the Robert Cray Band's Nothin' But Love a run for the money as best rhythm & blues record of 2012.

Slowly, gently, arpeggiated piano and guitar tunes have always been a soft spot for me, and Come To Me grabs me and holds me rapt for the duration. McClellan keeps taking it a step higher, and it's straight to musical heaven - a blissful waltz this is. Pugh's piano solo is majestic.

McClellan softens up for I Will Never Forget, and while it's softer, it's no less powerful, and her vibrato pulsates with feeling and passion. The band provides an acoustic, almost Appalachian via Southern California songwriter vibe, if that makes any sense - you'll get it, and like it when you hear it.

Braunagal's drums lead the way into Tender of the Most, and his sophisticated stick work will have you smiling, and toe tapping throughout this thoughtful meditation. It rocks you gently, not quite ever slowing to ballad, but staying much like a boat upon a river, rolling and swaying to its destination.

Precious Times is an uptempo stomp that winds things down, and it picks you up for an ending that brings you full circle, and you wonder where the time went, and you don't care, and you play the whole thing one more time.

Hey McClellan, great album! Damn, I wish it was always this easy. I ain't much good at anything but writing about what I genuinely dig, and you've made this very easy. This is a most have album if you enjoy great writing, singing, playing, and production - that's really all it has going for it. Brilliant - buy this the moment you can.

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