Ruthie Foster's `Phenomenal' journey

ON POPULAR MUSIC

February 01, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

The sting of the guitar, the ache in the voice -- it was all a balm for the spirit. The lyrics spoke plainly about the craziness of love: It ain't no fun being in love all by yourself. I never loved a man the way I love you. Love'll make you do right, love'll make you do wrong. Make you come home early, make you stay out all night long.

Underneath it all, the great soul singers -- Ray, Aretha, Curtis, Al, Marvin, Donny and many others -- made us believe that everything will be all right. The sun will rise, the night will come, cherries will ripen -- life goes on. And you know what? That broken heart will mend, too. Extracting the essence of gospel, classic soul music conveyed an irrevocable sense of healing.

On her new album, Ruthie Foster wanted to get back to that. The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, which hits stores Tuesday, boasts direct messages of hope and transcendence. The music is awash with shades of the blues, gospel, folk and, of course, classic soul.

"The album says a lot about where I am in my life journey, feeling comfortable about where I am personally and professionally," says the East Texas native. "I'm feeling joy again. I'm coming back to spirituality that has nothing to do with religion."

The spiritual indestructibility is conveyed through the power of Foster's voice -- a clear, sterling instrument sparkling with elements of a young Tina Turner and Joan Armatrading. Add that to the top-notch, mostly self-penned material (buoyed by tight, unadorned instrumentation), and you have a knockout album.

"This one is about my voice and says a lot about who I am and where I come from," says Foster, calling from her home in Austin, Texas.

The 11-track CD, released by the Houston-based Blue Corn label, is the artist's fifth album. But in a way, it feels like a debut.

"My producer, Malcolm Welbourne, really wanted the vocals to be the star of the CD, and I had never had an album to do that," says Foster, 42. "The voice is what's up front, which is how the great old soul records were."

That's right. You couldn't deny those fabulous voices of the past. Put the vocals of Mavis Staples or Gladys Knight farther down in the mix? Please! Though Foster doesn't rip the sky like those soul goddesses did back in the day, she is still affecting and moving in her own way. She turns Maya Angelou's famed poem "Phenomenal Woman" into a stirring, gospel-imbued testament of sista strength:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies/I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size/But when I start to tell them/They think I'm telling lies/I say it's in the reach of my arms/The span of my hips/The stride of my steps/The curl of my lips/I'm a woman Phenomenally/Phenomenal woman/ That's me.

"I love Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks, all the great black poets," Foster says. "I wanted to be a poetess; that's what we called it back in the '70s. That song says a lot about my love for black poetry."

Foster makes room for stomp-down blues with a stripped rendition of Son House's "People Grinnin' In Your Face."

"We went into the bathroom in the studio and recorded that for the sound," says Foster, who in the early '90s toured with the U.S. Navy band Pride. "We put mikes in and sang it with hand claps and foot stomps."

Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)" receives a moody, slight jazz tinge. It is perhaps Foster's most nuanced performance on the album. Inspirational tunes give way to plaintive, breakup numbers. "I Don't Know What to Do With My Heart," a sparsely orchestrated brokenhearted melody, is a standout. Oddly, it closes the album.

"The record is a cargo of where I am right now -- the breakup songs too," Foster says. "I'll be 43 next month, and I've earned every gray hair in my dreadlocks. I'm in a good place. Maybe these songs on the album will help somebody else heal. Music, especially the soul music from back in the day, was a big part of my healing."

Over time, the powers just get stronger.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Hear Rashod Ollison's weekly music podcasts at baltimoresun.com/rashodaudio.

Listen to clips from Foster's album at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.

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