Ruthie Foster – Let It Burn (2012)

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Ruthie Foster, slowly but surely, has made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter. This album, more than any before it, focuses on the first part — as she brilliantly reinterprets a series of other people’s songs, both contemporary and age-old.

So, you’ll hear Foster adding a twilight poignancy to Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” remaking it with every honey-smoked exhalation into a sizzling soul cry. Next, comes her measured, sensual take on Los Lobo’s “This Time” — something that sounds like a leftover from Mavis Staples’ more recent triumphal solo projects, so complete is Foster’s command of her vocal instrument.

William Bell guests on his own “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” though he doesn’t enter until the mood is shaped by an undulating organ-based groove that recalls Miles Davis and a vocal of worn-down grandeur from Foster. They are quickly joined by the saloon-door swing of James Rivers’ saxophone, giving the track a startling after-midnight melancholy. Foster and producer John Chelew (Blind Boys of Alabama, John Hiatt) go on to slow down the Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light,” and the space provided for her voice and Dave Easley’s ruminative guitar work recalls the best of Bonnie Raitt. In another quietly effective move, she takes the same meditative approach with the old Johnny Cash favorite “Ring of Fire,” transforming it into an almost unrecognizably gospel-tinged ballad. Foster’s smart reimaginings continue as she advances into the Band’s “It Makes No Difference” with a churchy reverence, a sensibility that’s only bolstered by the sensitive B3 work of Ike Stubblefield.

Just when things might have gotten perhaps too ecclesiastical, though, the deft New Orleans rhythm section of bassist George Porter Jr. and Russell Batiste propels “Long Time Gone” toward a greasy, R&B-seared revelation undreamt of by Crosby, Stills or Nash.

Right about now, you may be asking: OK, where’s do we find Ruthie herself in all of this?

Sprinkled in between are three originals that Foster wrote or co-wrote; she also assisted with new arrangements of two other traditional tunes — including the album-closing “Titanic.” That grounds the project in her own story — even as Let It Burn celebrates and expands upon the influences that so surely helped shape her sound. In fact, with the opening “Welcome Home,” Foster sets the stage for all that follows, singing: “When my mind didn’t know how to get there, I trusted my heart — and I swear, my soul came to welcome me home.” The album has that kind of synergy, even among such disparate musical sources, sounding of a piece in the way great biographies do.

As “Welcome Home” becomes this swirling affirmation, it’s dominated by the gospel-inflected musings of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who end up appearing on a quartet of tracks here — this low-key reminder of Foster’s roots in the choir at the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in her home state of Texas. Then there’s Foster’s original “Lord Remember Me,” which has the stark power of a chain-gang field holler — so filled with sadness but also with steely resolve. There, it seems that another corner of the road map is revealed, this one tracing Foster’s journey back home at age 30, after a stint in the Navy and a failed big-label deal, to care for her dying mother. Finally, we have “Aim for the Heart,” written with Jon Tiven. On its surface, the track fits into a more conventional soul-blues template — but Foster’s way with the tangy turn of phrase adds a new dimension, and it becomes instantly clear how the 47-year-old worked her way toward this kind of third-act success: on pure will and determination.

In the end, Let It Burn — innovative, aware and direct — comes together to form a journey of extraordinary depth and power. The message: You can go home again. But don’t be surprised if it’s different than the way you left it.

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Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn, recorded at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios, is due from Blue Corn Music on January 31, 2012.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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