Hard to Kill
4 out of 5 stars
Videos by American Songwriter
Somewhere between my office, the kitchen and the bedroom for nearly two years, I began completely questioning whether I was going to continue in the business of music, writes soul/blues Grammy-nominated singer Janiva Magness in the notes to this, her 16th album and first in three years. Thankfully, longtime producer/guitarist David Darling talked the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award winner off the ledge, with the result being this dozen-song set that codifies everything Magness does well.
It also comes on the heels of, and is closely connected thematically to, her first book Weeds Like Us. That memoir of how Magness rose out of deep personal problems (drug addiction, parental suicide, relocating to a series of foster homes as a 14-year-old runaway, living on the street) to persevere in the cutthroat music industry. Look no further than selections such as “I’m Still Here,” the opening “Strong as Steel” and the disc’s title to understand the intense introspection Magness has translated into potent roots-based music on the best of these dozen tracks.
Anything she wraps her husky expressive voice around connects, but some tunes such as “Come Around,” a duet with fellow road traveler and soul/bluesman John Nemeth, and the funky “Standing on the Moon (where’s my spaceship?)” hit particularly hard. She wades in the swamp on a percolating Little Feat-styled cover of John Hiatt’s “The Last Time” (That’s the last time I turn my back on you, she sings with barely repressed anger) as Darling whips off a stinging staccato solo, and goes Motown for the finger-popping “You and Me,” where she sings Just look at me—and see the troubles I’ve transcended on one of the more pop-oriented entries, albeit one planted in roots rock.
Magness and Darling slip into darker soul on the self-reflective “Closer” (Earned the grays in my hair/And the lines in my face) as a sizzling slide solo worthy of Ry Cooder kicks it into emotional overdrive. The sound verves to Memphis for a greasy Al Green-inflected “Lover Girl” before shifting to a Prince falsetto for the chorus as the band chugs behind her.
The stark, closing song sung to what seems like an estranged daughter “Oh Pearl” is so intimate, detailed, and emotionally wrenching it’s almost hard to absorb. Oh Pearl, maybe you’re better off without me/As long as you’re free she emotes over skeletal guitar and subtle organ in the album’s most riveting and intensely brooding moment. How she recorded it without breaking down is unclear.
It ends this compelling set from Magness who, even at this stage in her forty-year career, has delivered another tough, unapologetically passionate batch of soul-blues easily the equal to, and at times exceeding, anything in her catalog.
After surviving a particularly challenging life, it’s going to take more than a pandemic to squash talent like hers.