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Issue 1093

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Review

JJ Thames: Raw Sugar (DeChamp Records)

JJ Thames CD cover pic

9

6.0

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UK release date 26.08.2016

This is one of the finest blues and soul albums of the year. “Raw Sugar,” a sparkling showcase of this vocal powerhouse and her abilities. No slouch as a songwriter either. All 13 songs from her pen.

JJ's second album, it sounds like it could be her 20th in terms of quality. Produced by Eddie Cotton and JJ, Eddie also plays lead guitar across the album.

She has sung backing vocals for many artists and written for mainstream pop, R&B, rock and hip hop artists. Raised in a General Motors’ blue collar Detroit family, the classically and jazz trained singer began performing at nine-years-old, and became a blues artist by 17. She moved from Detroit to Jackson, Mississippi where she hit the Chitlin’ circuit with the likes of Marvin Sease. She worked with Bobby Blue Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Willie Clayton and Denise LaSalle among many others, and diversified into reggae-rock, singing with Outlaw Nation, before touring with many reggae and ska acts such as Fishbone, The English Beat, Israel Vibrations and others.

Here she is a chameleon of the vocal cords. She belts, growls, shouts, croons, moans and gives a master class of how to really sannnnngggg. Never over egging the pudding, leaving space and allowing the songs to breath. But her ability to connect to the core emotions in the lyrics, means she connects with her listener. The material gives her the perfect versatile vehicle to do so too. It harks back to the days of Chess, Bluebird, Stax, Atlantic, Hi Records, Motown and more.

JJ uses music as therapy and writes from her own emotional life story, and chooses material with positive affirmations. JJ says she aims to leave her audiences “healed and exhilarated.” Parts of this album take us to church, or inside a big circus tent revival meeting. Some of it is downright sexy. She can switch from a rockin’ Mississippi juke-joint, sassy blues tune or a sweet soul ballad, channelling Ruth Brown, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, BB King and their ilk. She can get funky too.

JJ says she is a woman of the 1950s/60s trapped in a young woman’s body. She dresses the part; dresses, frocks and accessories from that era. Her performance live and on record is Mississippi by way of Memphis with a stop-over in Detroit. She’s young, but she definitely has an old soul.

Her 2014 debut album “Tell You What I Know,” on Dechamp, stayed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot Singles chart for 21 weeks, two of those in top spot. The album also made it as high as number three on the Billboard blues chart. This one should do even better.

But it has not been an easy ride for Ms Thames, pronounced Timms, who was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She grew up studying music; piano and classical and jazz vocal technique. At 17, she gave birth to the first of three sons, and moved with him to Mississippi to study business and marketing at college. Settling in Jackson, she worked the regional club circuit, learning her trade. In 2004 she gave birth to her second son, who died from a rare strain of lymphoma just days from his second birthday. This tragedy prompted a return to Detroit. Singing was what got her through this terrible time.

She got herself a residency at a local nightclub every Friday night for a year-and-a-half, moving to New York in 2008 to really go for a music career. She struggled to make it there and ended up singing in the subway for change. A hard lesson but it taught her how to hold an audience with just her voice.

With the birth of her third son in 2010, she now had two young children to take care of, so music had to take a back seat. She worked as an assistant manager at a restaurant, juggling several jobs, before she could get back to performing.

In 2012, unable to pay even the weekly rent in an extended-stay hotel, JJ and her two sons ended up in a homeless shelter for a month. While there, she wrote what would become her early signature song, "Tell You What I Know." Family and friends stepped in, and with her two boys she moved to Mississippi. Here she made her own luck, signing with Dechamp Records in 2013 for her debut album, working with producers Grady Champion and Carole DeAngelis. “Tell You What I Know,” was released to critical acclaim in the spring of 2014.

JJ Thames has paid her dues, and some. She is still at the start of her journey as regards her musical career out there in the wider world, and with that “difficult second album” under her belt - and a real gem that second album is - she is well on her way to prove she is a fighter, a survivor and a force to be reckoned with as a singer, songwriter and artist.

The only co-write on the album - with Eddie Cotton - “Oh Lord,” opens proceedings; some fine sparse gospel where she is joined by Ben Hunter on mandolin and backing vocals and Joe Seamons on guitar and backing vox. JJ pulls back and shows control in her vocal delivery. “Hattie Pearl,” takes us to Ike and Tina Turner revue territory, with a “Nutbush City Limits,” template to the writing and arrangement. Driving 80 mph, horn-soaked R&B, with a real raunchy vocal.

Swinging blues on “I’m Leavin,” where Mr Cotton lets rip on guitar. “Leftovers,” moves over to some sweet old skool soul music, her phrasing immaculate. Great premise in the lyric, “I don’t do leftovers….the main ain’t who I want.” You tell him JJ.

Mid tempo “Woman Scorned,” kicks off with some fine guitar licks and JJ conjures up a growl in the back of her throat to spit out the lyric about…well, check the title and you’ll suss it.

Etta James territory with “Only Fool Was Me,” a very strong ballad with some gorgeous and under stated Cropper-style licks on guitar from Eddie Cotton, and a rasping sax solo from Jessie Primer that took me back to the much missed Junior Walker.

“Bad Man,” starts off with Albert King guitar chops, a mid-tempo, horn-laden soul blues, JJ gruff and growly. Great vocal on the gorgeous jazz soul ballad “Hold Me.” More Albert King guitar licks introduces the sassy groove of “Don’t Stop My Shine,” which dips in and out of Tower of Power horn heavy mode; JJ exploiting the rust and sandpaper side of her voice.

“I Don’t Feel Nothing,” swampy rhythm and blues, precedes “Plan B (Abortion Blues),” which starts with a voiemail recording of a child’s voice - JJ's son Israel Angel - before a laid back, soulful, beautiful jazz tinged ballad. Advocating protecting life and bringing children into the world, despite the man wanting to eliminate the problem. The vocal builds in passion and emotion.

The title track gives us slow blues, which sits on a tight groove. JJ very much at ease with this style of vocal delivery. Eddie Cotton’s blues licks add value. The closer “I Wanna Fall In Love,” treads Motown and girl group pastures.

One observation; the lead vocals could have done with being pushed up higher in the mix at times on the album. Some of this material and these towering vocal performances cried out for lush strings. Next time? Aptly, I began writing this review on what would have been the great Koko Taylor’s 88th birthday, as JJ reminded me of Koko – who I saw in concert years ago - on and off across these 13 tracks. She’s cut from the same cloth, has the same amount of talent which deserves the same global attention. You can bet your wang dang doodle on that……………..

Legendary R&B singer Dorothy Moore says JJ Thames is the future of the blues. One spin of "Raw Sugar," and that statement will make perfect sense.
Words SIMON REDLEY

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