English chanteuse Barb Jungr knows how to give a song a personality, even when it is a song that already has a strong one. She’s able to grab each song by the horns, and whether it is her own or someone else’s to start with, by the time she’s done, it’s definitely hers. This could be a bad thing in the wrong hands, but fortunately, Jungr has the creativity, skill, and shrewd sense which put her into that select category of artists whom we’re eager to hear cover songs. Her combination of covers and originals on her new Linn Records album ‘Walking in the Sun’ blends seamlessly into one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard this year.
The album starts with a cover of the early R&B classic ‘Who Do You Love?’ by Ellas McDaniel, better known by his stage name: Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley has always been at his strongest on riff songs which sit firmly on one chord or hover back and forth over two chords, riding the riff to intense heights. ‘Who Do You Love?’ is one of his most famous, a swaggering hoodoo strut like few others. Jungr knows of course that she’s not going to beat Bo Diddley at his own game, so she takes the song to her turf: Backed by a jazz combo in an arrangement that starts stealthily in the congas and bass until the singer comes in hot and breathy. The notes of Diddley’s original are slowed down to almost half speed, but then the beat is multiplied so that it sounds even faster and more urgent than the original. The guitar enters with one perfectly-placed blue chord that bends up to pitch. Piano and organ don’t even enter with their crisp, sparse contributions until the second verse. The instruments flicker like quicksilver while Jungr’s voice riffs over them, deft but slow-burning, toying with the words here and there to make them even more hers. This is an astonishingly good track, and it alone would warrant buying the album. The fact that it isn’t even the highlight of the record tells you how good this disc is.
The brilliance and urgency of ‘Who Do You Love?’ make it a great opening track, but its deployment in that position is also a very shrewd choice: The “concept” or “theme” of this album is faith, one that could send lots of potential listeners running for cover, fearing a portentous, preachy sermon in songs. But by starting with a brash groove with overtones of voodoo, Jungr makes it clear her theme will be all-embracing, not narrowly conservative to the point of stasis. That allows her to launch into Bob Dylan’s ‘Trouble In Mind’ without the sense of hectoring that sometimes palls on Dylan’s early-1980’s religious albums. Jungr emphasizes the bluesy roots of the song, continuing the nocturnal, urban feel of the opening track. Her vocal emphasizes the dreamlike patter of Dylan’s “all must fall” lyrics.
The evening sun burns low in the mellow third number, ‘Beautiful Life’ by Jungr and Adrian York, but the narrative tone is brighter than the preceding tracks, leading to a step up into a higher key as the song describes a bright, new sunrise. The track works very nicely on its own terms, but its placement here is perfect for the overall flow of the album. Time and time again, Jungr shapes not only each line or even each song, but the entire ebb and flow of the album. Next up is Jungr’s song ‘Drink Me Up’, a tribute to “old tent shows and all the forgotten women blues singers,” as she notes in the booklet. It starts slowly but gradually builds in weight and power so that by the time it is done, it proves to have strong legs. Eric Bibb’s guitar solo here is especially tasty.
The five-spot is traditionally the place for one of the catchiest songs on an album, and sure enough, Jungr plugs in a bluesy version of Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking in Memphis’ that combines vivid observation with an irresistibly dancing swing. One can almost hear Jungr smile as she launches into the middle eight, presiding over her musical feast with delight, because only she knows that she’s about to pull the carpet out from under her guests when she suddenly belts out some gospel lines over dramatic, slowed-down chords, bold as the oratory of an old-time revival. Jeff Barry’s ‘Walking in the Sun’, a prime-of-life song if ever there was one, comes next, giving the album its title and emotionally justifying it with Jungr’s full-throated delivery of the classic line, “Even a blind man can tell when he’s walking in the sun.” For the keystone position at the center of the album, Jungr takes the melancholy “Rainy Day” by Brownie McGhee and alters the lyrics to sing it from the woman’s point of view, an impressively effective conceit. The easier path would have been to merely change the gender being sung about in the song, but this angle makes it into a portrait of a restless woman’s reflection on the path she had to take. Jessica Lauren’s harmonica chimes in doleful commentary in the background, growing more elaborate as the song grows in emotion. The sound of Linn Records’ high resolution DSD recording is especially welcome here, as a quick perusal of the history of harmonica recordings might leave your ears black and blue from shrillness and distortion. The instrument’s sound has been caught here in its natural pungency, without processing flattening or squeezing it into something ugly.
The second half of the album starts off with ‘Take Out Some Insurance’, a lively, teasing blues number associated with Little Jimmy Reed. It lightens the mood before Jungr tears into the next track, the most wide-flung and unexpected of the album. It starts with a harsh, aggressive a capella verse of the old traditional song ‘Run On For A Long Time’, which threatens that God will cut you down. But then it runs headlong into Randy Newman’s acid-witted anti-faith song ‘God’s Song’. Its inclusion here is what makes Jungr’s theme truly work. Her subject is faith, and she fearlessly dares to nail it to the wall with a blistering, theatrical account of the number. The cut uses a minimum of processing to maximum effect: Just a light touch of reverb to Jungr’s vocal colors the drama without ever robbing us of the sense that the band and singer are right there in front of us, playing a show for an audience of one.
Next, astonishingly, comes Bob Dylan’s almost-lost masterpiece ‘Blind Willie McTell’. I say astonishingly because it is boldness bordering on sacrilege to cover a song this great. It was originally written by Dylan in the early-1980’s, and was slated for use on his album ‘Infidels’. But Dylan was never quite satisfied with how it turned out in the studio, and he never found a way to fit it in to the finished album. So he dropped it, and moved on to other things. Only an artist of Dylan’s potency and confidence could simply drop a song like ‘Blind Willie McTell’, which would turn any number of lesser stars into legends had they written it. It finally saw the light of day when the famous ‘Bootleg Series, Volumes I-III’ were released on Compact Disc in 1991. The cut included there is a somber, passionate version with Dylan on vocal and piano and Mark Knopffler on guitar. There is also another bootleg floating around with a more conventional band arrangement, preferred by some Dylan fans, though emphatically not me. So, granted, a song that never found what Dylan regarded as a final shape. But that hardly stops it from being a masterpiece. Thus I was surprised and not a little concerned when I saw that Jungr was covering it on this album. And when the track first started, I was not happy. Jessica Lauren’s arrangement here is almost buoyant, with a jazzy swing. At first glance, it seemed all wrong. But it doesn’t pay to ever underestimate what Jungr and friends might have up their sleeves. As the groove settles in, it gives the song a period feel, like something out of the 1930’s, with a wicked rhythmic hook. Soon it became clear that the buoyancy is actually nervous, kinetic energy. The jazz is the gallows-glamour of Great Depression-era clubs. Jungr turns up her radiance to full and slinks through the first few verses quite affectingly, if still seemingly at odds with the starkness of the song. Then she plays her trump card: The instruments abruptly cease, leaving her alone, vulnerable in the spotlight, lipstick gleaming as a tear falls. She slowly spins out the next verse and chorus like a glimpse into the center of a soul, shadowed by a few mere ghosts of dissonant notes drifting in from the background. When the instruments revive the groove, there is now an urgency and desperation that makes one believe, even if only for a few minutes, that this song couldn’t be done any other way. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it myself.
Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ comes next, starting with Jungr singing over a conga drum for over one minute before any other instruments join in. The stark opening makes the warmth of the arrangement that much more welcome when it comes in, but additionally helps the ear shrug off the strong, dark flavor of the previous track in order to flow with the genial, uplifting melodic line as Jungr riffs into higher registers. Background vocals join in with the full band to send the track to its inspiring peak. It is followed by Jungr’s cover of a song by her guitarist, Eric Bibb, entitled ‘Heading Home’. Its “been there, done that” ennui shrewdly balances the strong emotions of the two preceding numbers, and its proclamation of heading home “through fire and rain, through hurricane” sets the stage for the last song, Carole King’s wistful and tender ‘Way Over Yonder’, done here simply and poignantly with Jungr’s intimate vocal accompanied by Jenny Carr’s harp-like piano, with a lone, subdued harmonica solo from Jessica Lauren.
Linn Records’ sound is mercifully free of heavy-handed processing. Instead, producer Calum Malcolm concentrates on artful balance, sweet clarity, and freshness. The regular Compact Disc layer of this hybrid release has wonderfully up-front sound at a vigorous level. Its warmth and immediacy only improve as you move into the high-resolution stereo and multichannel Super Audio CD layers. One could argue that the surround channels are under-utilized here, as they provide only ambiance. But what ambiance! There are no frills here, no guitars sneaking up behind you. The basic sonic image of the band up-close and in front of you never changes. The surrounds are used to bring the listener into the room with the musicians, and they do that quite effectively. Indeed, the consistency of approach, allied with the fact that the entire album was recorded in a mere three days—not to mention the wonderfully sculpted flow from one part of the album to the next—gives this disc the kind of unity rarely heard outside of a live concert. And even then, it is only the live concerts of the most skillful artists that achieve this sort of shaping, something akin to a full-length movie or a classical symphony. Once again, I find my thoughts turning back to Bob Dylan, who is obviously a central inspiration to Jungr, even though her own style is quite different from his. She has learned his lessons well: Lessons of vision, commitment, characterization, and control of the ebb and flow of energy. I can offer no greater praise than that. Suffice it to say that when I first started listening to this album, my first coherent thought was: “This can’t possibly be this good.” Now after exploring it, living with it, and running through it with a fine-toothed comb for a few weeks, all I can say is this: It is.