Irma Thomas - Simply Grand
Irma Thomas’ last album of 2006 – the Grammy awarded “After the Rain” – was a personal triumph and a powerful tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which almost claimed her life and caused a huge stir in the media, with rumors circulating about her supposed death. With that being said, her latest Rounder release feels like the calm after the storm. Highly understated and subtle in its performance, this album takes several listens before you appreciate it.
On this disc, the great soul singer is
paired in a series of duets with 13 pianists. Sometimes the
chemistry is undeniable, as it is with Dr. John, who’s history with
Thomas goes back to 1959 when he played on her very first recording
“You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess With My Man.)” There’s a
playful funkiness and great swing feel going on between the two in
“If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home” and the excellent new song “Be
You.” Another connection is happening in Randy Newman’s “I Think
It’s Going To Rain Today”, with the writer himself at the piano,
playing at a very slow and wistful tempo as she ponders on the
song’s theme of human kindness. She sings most of the songs in a
reflective, easy and rounded manner, instead of showing off her soul
pipes. But she gets more passionate in “Underground Stream,” a
catchy soul-gospel tune penned by pianist partner David Egan, which
became my immediate favorite on this disc.
As with many concept albums of today, where older artists are supposed to get stripped down and raw (like Rick Rubin’s work with Neil Diamond) or teamed up with younger talents, the concepts and pairings don’t always sound as interesting as they look on paper. Sometimes I wish producer Scott Billington could have changed up the formula of 13 pianists backing up a vocalist, playing a brief solo and then going back to accompanying. The overall sound of the recording is fine, but occasionally the vocals sound a little low and distant in the mix. The duet with Norah Jones at the keys is pretty bland; the collaboration with John Medeski sounds slightly disjointed and the volume level of his piano overrides her vocals, as if they weren’t recording in the same room. The song “Overrated” has an odd and slightly more contemporary R&B melody that takes time to grasp, and the arrangement isn’t providing much help… the song simply sounds like it needs more work.
But none of these minor missteps take away from Irma Thomas’ dignity and grandness as a singer. Her expressiveness and sense of nuance is beautiful. A few upper register notes sound a little challenged, but she predominantly stays within her warm and smoky contra-alto, making “Simply Grand” a sophisticated treat to listen to.