If there are any hipsters reading this, you may want to skip this sentence, because it will offend you: I believe that usually obscure music is obscure for a very good reason. Most music that never gains an audience really sucks; that's why it doesn't have an audience. Duh. It just doesn't seem like it, because when you do find a good artist that you've never heard of, it makes it kind of special; you can go and tell all your friends about what they're missing. Everybody loves that. This is also one of the main reason I love record stores (next to bargain bins; seriously, that shit is awesome). The first time I heard Fela Kuti was in a music store, and I have been an unabashed fan since. This brings us to Beth Hart's new album, Don't Explain. I was scrounging the bargain bin in a record store when the owner started playing this album. The opening track, the bluesy-as-all-hell "Sinner's Prayer" hits you like a baseball bat to the face. HotDAMN can Hart wail. So much so that I was shocked to find out that she's white. I had to know who this was.
On top of that, you really have to admire her nerve. You see, there is a group of artists that people say you shouldn't ever cover, because there's a snowflake's chance in hell that you can do any better, and this album is a who's who of those daunting artists: Bill Withers ("For My Friends"), Aretha Franklin ("Ain't No Way"), Tom Waits ("Chocolate Jesus"), Etta James ("I'd Rather Go Blind", "Something's Got A Hold Of Me"), and- most dauntingly- Billie Holiday ("Don't Explain"). It takes balls of titanium to challenge artists of that calibur.
And. She. Tops. Every. Damn. One. Of. Them.
Teaming up with guitarist Joe Bonamossa, Hart gives us blues, soul, and jazz at their most bruising, filled with thundering highs and foreboding lows. They may all be covers, but Hart makes each song her own, using her powerful voice to its fullest potential. She has the perfect voice to sing the blues- rough and just raspy enough. She recalles great shouters such as Koko Taylor, Duffy Bishop, and Etta James herself. But best of all, while her voice is always powerful, Hart never oversings. It seems to be a disease plaguing modern music where perfectly good singers constantly feel as if they have to prove to us that they're good; filling their songs with pointless cadenzas and completely forgetting how to pick a note and fucking stick with it. All the great singers of old made it seem effortless; they knew that they had nothing to prove. They kept the notes steady and strong. Hart understands this well, and I think that the Beyonces of the world need to sit up and take note; this is how it's done. This is how you sing soul. Soul singers of the world, you just got schooled on your own music by a 38-year-old white woman. How does that make you feel?
Go out and buy this album. Right now. Seriously, what are you waiting for? It's nothing new, sure, but the blues has never been big on change. What Don't Explain is, though, is a singer simultaneously paying tribute to the singers and songwriters who have influenced her throughout her carrer while blowing them all out of the water. Plain and simple, it's a fun time with some great musicians and a singer who, while staying close to her influences, has a style all her own. It's full of verve and energy, and in this age of bland, listless, forgettable pop, that's always something to celebrate. Grade: A+