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The Phenomenal
Artist: Ruthie Foster
Label: Blue Corn Music/ Proper Records
Time: 11 Tracks / 44 mins
Experiencing this disc stopped me in my tracks. It has been a long time since I last heard either such a stunning soul-gospel voice or such an unexpected instrumentation. This girl is the real deal when it comes to getting soul into a vocal performance, with a sound like His Hands-era Candi Staton, but the lack of horns here is not the only difference from a standard gospel or soul track; the backing is almost hippy-ish in places. This version of Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of my Labor” has a wash reminiscent of the seascape sound behind Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross,” while Foster’s own addictive “Heal Yourself” has an electric piano groove that evokes bands like The Happy Mondays, and I am even sent back to Floyd’s “Echoes” at one point. The nearest act that comes to mind is probably a live performance by the late Pop Staples, who would use his rich vocals backed by just a rippling electric guitar.
Perhaps the reason it all works so well is the mix of Foster’s restraint and Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne’s laid-back production. Foster shows on the à capella account of Son House’s “People Grinnin’ in your Face” that her voice is rich enough to fill the gap between the speakers, yet she rarely lets it all out. Sometimes, when she gives us a burst of sustain, Aretha comes to mind; yet there is a terrific tenderness in her voice during the old Sister Rosetta Thorpe classic “Up Above my Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” that blows Kevin Max’s version from last year out of the water. Welbourne is sensitive enough to her vocals that he clears the way of any distracting encumbrances that could clog up the sound, leaving a warm, rhythmic and deeply felt collection of songs.
Foster has been a sort-of-protégé of Eric Bibb, and this clean sound is very much in his style, especially when she does blues, as on “Mama Said,” which finishes before the four-minute mark, then drifts back into life with a plaintive blues harp over its acoustic country blues guitar rhythms. She also sings Bibb’s “A Friend like You,” which features an old-time organ backing, crisp drumming and just enough slide guitar.
Foster says that making this album exposed her vulnerability, but that may be another reason for its success. There is an unmissable depth of feeling here that helps to make this a classic album. 
I could go on singing her praises, pointing out moments like the head-turning vocals over the key change in “Phenomenal Woman,” but instead strongly recommend investigating her for yourself. Try YouTubing her “Harder than the Fall” at The Living Room and see if it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes for no apparent reason, other than that she has the most soulful voice. I own the best of Marvin Gaye, but I’d hear this more than ten times for every time I play Gaye. Apparently, the “Phenomenal” title was not her idea, but it is highly apposite. This is simply one of the best albums I have heard this year.
Derek Walker
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