Listen Up: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Marcia Ball

So Many Rivers (Alligator Records)

By Ken Shimamoto

For most of her 30-year career, Austin R&B chanteuse Marcia Ball has been a rollicking, party-ready performer who likes to see audiences moving. James Hinkle, who played guitar in her band during the ’80s, recalls that she wasn’t happy “unless they were up and dancing.” But on Ball’s 12th album, So Many Rivers, Fort Worth expatriate Stephen Bruton has provided her with a slightly more Adult Alternative-friendly sound that seems to have been designed to propel her into the territory once occupied by Bonnie Raitt (and, more recently, Joan Osborne).

The classy packaging gives away the producer’s intentions: a spiffy six-panel digipack replete with artsy photos — even a painting, for godsakes — and an eight-page lyric sheet insert. Similarly, the tracks have a radio-ready sheen while retaining the essential elements of Ball’s music: the warmth of her singing and the strength of her boogie-woogie/New Orleans piano (although Bruton’s de-emphasized her powerful left hand in favor of electric bass in a sop to radio programmers). The backup — by a crew that includes Fort Worthians James Young on guitar, lap steel, and fiddle; and Red Young on organ; along with ace horn arrangements by Lon Price and Red — is top-notch but unobtrusive.

The songs are mostly mature ruminations on relationships from songwriters Ball, Danny Timms, and Donnie Fritts. “Baby, Why Not” sports an irresistible second-line strut. “Honeypie” is an agreeable collision of Louisiana (Wayne Toups’ zydeco accordion) and Austin (a rinky-dink organ that’s a ringer for the late Texas Tornado Doug Sahm’s accompanist Augie Meyers) that’s heap big fun. “So Many Rivers to Cross” isn’t the Jimmy Cliff reggae classic, but rather a tale of long-distance love with a groove worthy of the fonky Meters. Overall, an accessible record in all the right ways.


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