November 25, 2011
Review by Karlyn Suggs
Label: Bismeaux Records
A couple of Sunday's back, I came home to find the new Carolyn Wonderland CD, "Peace Meal", in my mailbox. Wonderland is an outstanding blues guitarist, so I was pretty eager to hear what she had come up with. After listening to the first track, the Janis Joplin cover, "What Good Can Drinking Do," it got me thinking. Carolyn recorded an entire album called Alcohol and Salvation. Where was she going with her music? The possibilities were endless.
"Victory of Flying" is an original track that showcases the range of her Telecaster tone. From the subtle end of the aural spectrum to the scorching hot, all you have to do is close your eyes to discover that this album is most definitely about the journey and not the destination. What a relief.
"Only God Knows When" invokes memories of a better time when Lowell George was still alive and Bonnie Raitt was Queen of the Slide. The raunchy honky-tonk roadhouse piano sound, that is so very reminiscent of Little Feat in the day, makes a perfect pairing for Wonderland's vocal treatment of the tune. It brings forth memories of a Sunday morning spent in a Missionary Baptist Church getting your gospel fix on. Wonderland's vocal range is so amazing on this song it would have been easy to mistake her for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
After that, here's where things really begin to get interesting - lyrically that is. "St. Marks" is her self-professed love song. I could not stop myself from smiling as the words came into focus, especially the quiet innuendo of John and Yoko's relationship. "If love and peace were so easily reached, the world would go the way that we do for hours and hours."
There was something familiar and comfortable in the first verse of track five. I caught the phrase "minister of grace," so I looked at the credits and sure enough, music by Vince Welnick, lyric by Robert Hunter - an ode to the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. My initial reaction to hearing the song was the Telecaster Carolyn decided to use on this song was simply the wrong guitar. Jerry, no doubt, would have used his Gibson SG or one of the Irwin's. But as I listened closely to the music, the ease and comfort of the tone I had expected to hear wasn't there. When I discovered Vince had written the lyrics after Garcia's death, I listened even harder. Finally, in a moment of clarity, the song made sense. I understood why Hunter preferred to provide the frame for us to draw our own experience, our own conclusions. It was done that way so any artist could transform the song into who they were as a musician at the given moment they decided to tackle the tune. I smiled inwardly at this realization. Carolyn more than claimed the song with her guitar. It is the subtle tone of her intimacy with the Telecaster that makes this tune her own. In Wonderland's emotionally charged gut punching vocal, she can blow the roof off any house that Joplin built. This song was proof positive of that.
It seemed a courageous move to cover the Robert Johnson song "Dust My Broom", especially since Elmore James had made the tune his own. You need only listen to the opening riff to know that this girl is here to play, and here to stay. The sound is pure Texas blues. She has entered into territory previously claimed by guitar players of a different sex. "I Can Tell," a Bo Diddley standard, sets the speed on cruise control through the next two tracks.
Fueled by the driving force that comes from determination and sheer will, Peace Meal is an interesting mixture of history and revelation. The general listening populace hasn't been given a musical education of this kind, perhaps since B.B. King recorded Live at the Regal. Dylan's "Meet Me in the Morning" is another example of how she can take a song once claimed by another musician and make it her own. On the Muddy Waters track, "Two Trains", you can almost hear Little Water blowing his harp as Carolyn belts out every note.
On the whole, Peace Meal is a sacramental feast for the soul. It is probably not by accident that the producer, Larry Campbell saved the upbeat ditty "Shine On" for last. It leaves the listener thirsting for more. Throughout this cornucopia of sound, we have been treated to a journey of discovery and awareness. There seems to be no end to what this talented musician can do.
Carolyn Wonderland's career has been a long and winding road. With Peace Meal, she can finally end what's been a non-stop journey of self-discovery and get comfortable in her own skin. When I first put the music on, it was the probabilities that had me intrigued. However, after I had fully digested the songs, it was the possibilities of where Carolyn would take the music that had me all ears. There's no need to compare this artist to the doomed path Janis Joplin would finally end up on. They were both born in Texas, but the similarities stop there. In the end, this Houston native will burn hotter, brighter and longer than those embers that died decades ago. I for one, can't wait.