Joan Armatrading – Into The Blues (2007)

Early on in Joan Armatrading’s career there were little hints that maybe she had more facility on the guitar than she was letting on. There was that acoustic guitar intro to “Join The Band” on her famous third album for example. But there was always a guitar player on the record and on the road – notably Jerry Donohue on her breakthrough record.

Several things happened as she sought to update her sound throughout the 80s: She moved away from the folk-rock, singer-songwriter format; electronic keyboards became more prominent; her sales dropped and she started to take on more of the guitar chores. I recall seeing her in Swaziland in 1990. For most of the show she either didn’t play guitar at all or stuck to simple strummed acoustic parts. Then for the encores she strapped on a red strat and showed that her guitar chops were far more substantial than anything else in the show had suggested.

If any doubts linger, this 2007 album will settle the matter. She plays everything except the drums, there’s a lot of electric guitar and she’s some way beyond competent.

But enough of this. Let’s get over the revelation – not that big a one really – that she knows which end of a guitar is which and consider why else this album might be of interest.

I would bet (indeed I know) that I am not the only person in the known universe who fell under the spell of her eponymous third album back in the 70s and thought it had all been a bit of a bumpy ride since then. That third album was very good, very consistent with hardly anything out of place – songs, performance, studio players , production all magically came together on one record at one time. The next album sold respectably but was not as near perfect, and the one after that seemed very much like the flogging of a horse until it died. Then she went all pop in the late 70s and early 80s and a greatest hits album from that era would prove that there was still the occasional interesting song with a strong performance (like the bizarre but interesting “I Love It When You Call Me Names”) but also that something got lost somewhere.

It was easy to conclude that she and/or her management had erred in straying too far from the folk-rock, singer-songwriter sound that worked so brilliantly on the Joan Armatrading album. But Into The Blues  makes the case that it’s not the SOUND that was the issue.

This album has two things going for it – OK three if you want to count the guitar playing – and none of them are a return to the sound that she had in the early 70s.

One of them is the consistency of the material.  It’s not really blues throughout – more informed by the blues than an exact reproduction. The songs are pretty contemporary. “Liza” even gets close to hip-hop in it’s middle section. The songs are also minimalist at times – most notably on “Deep Down” which must be the least wordy song she’s written and which, if I’m hearing things correctly, has just one chord to it. “There Ain’t A Girl Alive” is an unabashed stomping rocker – which is not routine territory for her but it works well and presses all the right buttons.

And this is the real return to form: Her strengths, one now sees with 20:20 hindsight, were not a soft rock sound but directness and sincerity that stay just the right side of being overly earnest. And this is what we get loads of here. No clever gimmicks, no trying too hard for a hit, and a focus on her strengths in the songwriting and in the delivery. This includes her vocals which, like everything else about her, are at their best when they’re kept strong and devoid of frills.

She’ll probably never have a hit record again and is now playing to the faithful. That doesn’t make her a spent force.

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