By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Three's a charm
Perhaps it's something about the implied cooperation and common cause it takes to get three divas together and on the same track, but such efforts produce unusually attractive music. Witness Trio, the 1987 album that combined the voices of Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris, and Dreams Come True, 1990's closer-to-home release from Antone's Records that starred Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, and Lou Ann Barton.
Ball is back with a similar effort on Rounder--the appropriately titled Sing It!--that features a holy trinity of female Gulf Coast singers: Ball, fellow Texan Tracy Nelson, and Crescent City chanteuse Irma Thomas. Thick with the various spices essential to third coast music--a little Creole here, a strong dose of Muscle Shoals sensibility and Mardi Gras rhythms there, all laid over a brawny but accomplished R&B base--Sing It! seems destined to head many "best of" lists at the end of the year.
The album's motive force was the unabashed admiration that Ball and Nelson have for Thomas, the "Soul Queen of New Orleans" who sang on essential R&B hits like "I Wish Somebody Would Care" and "You Can Have My Husband but Please Don't Mess with My Man." Both Ball and Nelson had sung with Thomas before, but the three had never come together as a trio. When separate solo albums on Rounder brought them together for a show in New Orleans several years ago, the three enjoyed each other's company so much that plans were laid for this collaborative effort.
Thomas is the creative center around which the album revolves. Ball and Nelson studied her phrasing, intonation, and technique so they could better sing with her. While this lends the album a certain sameness at first listen (which in no way detracts from its high quality), repeated listening provides an almost exhilarating depth as it becomes easier to tell Ball from Nelson from Thomas as they blend their vocals and take duo and solo turns.
Canny song choice--drawing on the talents of Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Jerry Ragavoy and the like--reinforces the trio's luminous talent. Whether it's the syncopated second-line rhythms of the opening (and title) track, the R&B vamp that propels Thomas' Bible-based call to faithfulness, or the heartbroken power of Nelson's "Please No More," every track on Sing It! is a gem. The bouncy "If I Know You" is a guilt- and regret-free kissoff co-written by Ball and Austin blues fixture Sarah Brown, and "People Will be People" is a slithery bit of social commentary that features Thomas in the lead slot. The technical accomplishments of Sing It! aside, its real genius is not only the way in which Ball, Nelson, and Thomas combine their talents, but how each singer strengthens and illuminates the skills of her sisters.