Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Does the world make you think everything’s coming unwound? … When the whole world seems fake, give me something real,” demands soul/blues singer Shemekia Copeland on her most politically tinged effort yet.
On her eighth album, the fiery veteran singer, and daughter of famed bluesman Johnny Copeland, is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. That’s clear in America’s Child’s tough, firm and unapologetically inclusive stance. Copeland has never been shy about putting her beliefs into songs, predominantly written by others but clearly representative of her views. From this album’s title and cover photo of a child draped in the American flag to tracks like “Americans” (New Orleans second-line funk, co-penned by Mary Gauthier, laundry listing the wide swath of people in the US with “no two are the same, I hope we never change”) and the swamp blues of “Great Rain,” co-composed by John Prine who also duets, Copeland pushes her blues confines while staying tethered to them. Will Kimbrough takes over production from Oliver Wood who worked on previous Copeland discs. He brings in Prine, Emmylou Harris, pedal steel master Al Perkins, J.D. Wilkes, Steve Cropper, and others to assist.
From the opening propulsive blues-rocking “Ain’t Got Time for Hate” to a somewhat surprising, creatively rearranged cover of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” where Copeland refashions the UK ’60s classic as a slow-burn gospel (“Once I get started, I go to town”), Copeland asserts her individuality, both in her searing, husky, soulful vocals and philosophical viewpoints. There’s still room for tough yet tender romance in the driving greasy slide guitar Southern blues-rock cover of Kevin Gordon’s “One I Love,” and a sweet testimonial to the promise of finding true love after multiple failed attempts in her version of her dad’s “Promised Myself,” the disc’s most emotionally moving moment.
Rhiannon Giddens and her banjo take us backwoods for a folksy “Smoked Ham and Peaches” that uses the titular honest meal as a means to escape from phony politics (“how many cards can they keep up their sleeves?”). And things get really scary as Copeland torches her home because she’s been cheated on in the slow sizzle of the cautionary “Such a Pretty Flame” (“nothing burns hotter than your own regrets”).
Even though Copeland doesn’t get songwriting credit, she has meticulously chosen material — much of it co-composed by longtime manager John Hahn — that reflects her views, both political and personal. Most importantly, she delivers these tunes with fierce intent, balancing her four alarm vocals with a more subtle approach.
Shemekia Copeland might have been born into the blues, but the riveting America’s Child shows her continuing to push those boundaries, creating music reflecting a larger, wider-ranging tract of Americana.