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(Sirensongs Records 001205 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/4/2001)
High-quality albums by pop songstresses -- artists who are not necessarily songwriters -- have become rare. Back in the 1970s, performers like Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Tracy Nelson established reputations as premier interpreters of mostly other people's songs, and created a stream of albums that stand to this day as classic recordings. These days, there are truckloads of hideously commercial pop CDs by singers groomed more for their video appearance than their musical ability, and on the other extreme, an encouraging number of more folk-oriented albums by worthy singer-songwriters. But music in the tradition of prime Ronstadt and Raitt has become an endangered species. Fortunately, this week we have a fine album that does carry on the style. It's by Jonell Mosser, a Nashville-based singer, and her new CD, at least her third, is called Enough Rope.
This album could also be described as the coming out of a ubiquitous studio backing vocalist. Ms. Mosser has appeared on recordings with a remarkable range of artists including Etta James, Rodney Crowell, Bruce Cockburn, Jesse Winchester, Vince Gill, B. B. King, Wynonna, John Gorka, Waylon Jennings, Trisha Yearwood, and Maura O'Connell. Though she was born in Kentucky and had bluegrass and country as well as Broadway and jazz in her background, Ms. Mosser's first love has always been soul and R&B, and she bring that approach to her own recordings. She started attracting attention in Nashville in the late 1980s, performing in clubs there, and soon counting other, better-known performers among her biggest fans. She struck up a relationship with songwriter and the former leader of the Seventies band Orleans, John Hall, and the two have collaborated on almost fifty songs since then, though Ms. Mosser's recordings tend to be dominated by the compositions of others. Enough Rope features only three original songs, but they are worthy compositions. Most of the rest of the album consists of songs by respected songwriters who have penned hits for others or been well-known in their own right, such as Nick Lowe and Bill Withers.
The backing is provided by a tasteful electric band, with the level of musicianship reminiscent of classic Linda Ronstandt records. The album's co-producer with Ms. Mosser is guitarist Tom Britt, who is featured prominently, along with the regular rhythm section of Chris McHugh on drums and Michael Rodes on bass. Other backing musicians include keyboard man Dennis Burnside, and guitarist Bob Britt. They provide the right combination of drive and tastefulness that puts Ms. Mosser's appealingly soulful voice in the best light, and helps to make this such a standout record.
Enough Rope opens with a short original bluesy song called Red Headed Mama, made to sound as if it were coming out of a radio... <<>> before the band kicks in with Love Like Rain co-written by Canadian blues-rocker Colin Linden. The love song has distinct Gospel overtones, and Ms. Mosser and the band sink their teeth into it. <<>>
Somewhat more laid-back, but definitely one of the album's highlights is a song by Dana Cooper called Boney Man. The interesting allegorical lyrics combine with the semi-acoustic backing to make the track both intriguing and memorable. <<>>
Reminiscent of the 1970s style of pop singer-songwriters is Your Love Is Working in My Life, by Russell Smith formerly of the Amazing Rhythm Aces and Dave Loggins, who had a few hits of his own. It's the kind of song that could work in a contemporary Nashville country setting, but Ms. Mosser and her musical colleagues take it a more soulful direction. <<>>
The Nick Lowe song that Ms. Mosser includes is When I Write the Book, which conveys some of the rockabilly-influenced sound that Lowe and his group the Rockpile were known for. <<>>
One of the best pieces of lyric writing is also one of the album's few musical disappointments. Mama's Dream is one of the original songs by Ms. Mosser, written with John and Johanna Hall, and unlike the rest of the album, produced by Hall and featuring different backing musicians, including Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten. The musical setting is a lot more commercial, detracting from Ms. Mosser's performance. <<>>
On the other hand, the other of Ms. Mosser's original songs written with John and Johanna Hall is among the album's gems. Circle is a first-rate combination philosophical lyrics, an interesting tune and a laid-back arrangement. <<>>
Bill Withers' song When I'm Kissing My Love, is another of the album's strongest pieces, with its funky treatment and no-holds-barred performance by Ms. Mosser. <<>>
The album ends with a pretty, introspective song called Resurrection Day, with its lyrics of separation, and an acoustic accompaniment. Ms. Mosser proves her versatility with her fine performance of this song, adding a degree of soulfulness to the basically folk-style musical setting. <<>>
In some ways Jonell Mosser can be compared to Tracy Nelson, the soulful, 1960s-era rock singer. Both have powerful voices, have worked in various musical settings, and settled into Nashville. But with her credentials as an in-demand backing singer, Ms. Mosser is perhaps wider-ranging in her stylistic abilities. Her new album Enough Rope shows her in fine form with an outstanding backing band helping her to serve up songs from folky ballads to energetic rockers, which she handles with aplomb and a good deal of charm. Little wonder that other more-well-known artists are such fans of Ms. Mosser. The album brings back what has become a rarity, a tasteful pop-rock album by memorable singer doing songs from a variety of different sources, and doing them very well.
The sonic quality of the recording is very good, with a clean but punchy sound. Ironically, the one track engineered by George Massenberg, one of the most respected figures in the business, turns out to be the only disappointment. Engineer Mike Janus deftly handled rest of the CD.
Doing backing vocals in the studio is a surprisingly demanding profession, and relatively few have risen to the top of the field. Jonell Mosser is one of those, and it's nice to hear her out front. Enough Rope is an excellent album in the best rock songstress tradition.
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