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Beth Hart: Fire on the Floor
by George Graham
(Provogue Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/8/2016)
White blues and soul influenced women performers have been on the scene for decades, going back to Janis Joplin, along with, more recently, Susan Tedeschi, and the durable Bonnie Raitt. Most tend to emphasize the rockier side of the spectrum, but the field has some versatile artists. This week we have a new recording by a performer who has been on the scene for more than twenty years now, achieving some commercial success in the process. It’s Beth Hart, and her new approximately 13th album is called Fire on the Floor.
A Los Angeles native, Beth Hart began playing in some of the clubs around Los Angeles around 1993, putting together a band. She got some attention though winning on a talent show hosted by TV personality Ed McMahon. Her first album, called Immortal was released on Atlantic Records in 1996. Her following recording, Screamin’ for My Supper came in 1999, and led to her international career, yielding a number one record in New Zealand. And over much of her career, she has enjoyed more popularity in Europe and Down Under than in the US. She has made music for TV shows including the series “Californication” and appeared in an off-Broadway theatrical biography of Janis Joplin. Despite having struggled in the past with substance abuse since a young age, she remained busy and had a couple of notable collaborations with blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa – their joint album Seesaw was nominated for a Grammy Award – and she toured with rock legend Jeff Beck, with some commercial success in Europe.
Now she is out with Fire on the Floor, released on October in Europe, and now in early February in the US. I think it’s the best of her recordings I have heard. She works with some blue-chip Los Angeles based studio musicians like guitarists Waddy Wachtel, Michael Landau and Dean Parks, drummer Jerry Marotta, and Ivan Neville of the Neville Brothers on piano, who brings a little of the New Orleans groove to some of the blues-rock tunes. Others in the regular band on this album are bassist Brian Allen, and producer Oliver Lieber, who played multiple instruments. Jeff Beck makes a cameo appearance on one of the tracks. Ms. Hart plays piano on a couple of the songs, though for most of the album, she limits herself to doing her often powerful vocals.
Though Ms. Hart has been known for her creative covers of songs, this album consists of all-original material, some of which had been on the back burner for years now. The songs have mostly broken-hearted, unfaithful-man type lyrics with blues-rock and soul influenced arrangements. It’s all in a classic sound, making no concessions to the pressure to be trendy.
Opening the generous 13-song 52-minute album is a surprisingly jazzy track called Jazz Man one of relatively few songs in which the man in question merits praise. <<>>
With a bit of a New Orleans groove in parts is Love Gangster, in which the lyrics paint a picture of a woman searching for a somewhat disreputable character for a relationship. The song is a multi-faceted one and has one of Ms Hart’s best vocal performances. <<>>
The soul side of the album comes out on Let’s Get Together which is borrows from both Memphis soul and Motown. Ms. Hart does her own backing vocals. <<>>
Another strong track is Love Is a Lie which is a kind of rock and roll torch song. It’s right up Ms. Hart’s vocal alley. <<>>
The straight-out rock side of the album comes out on a song called Fat Man, which Ms. Hart said was a co-write with Glenn Burtnick. She says that core of the song sat around for some seven years before she finished it up for this album. <<>>
The title track Fire on the Floor is another rock torch song about one of those complicated affairs imbued with unfaithfulness. <<>>
With Ivan Neville again showing some of his New Orleans groove on piano is Baby Shot Me Down, the story of a relationship taking a very bad turn.<<>>
Turning back toward classic soul ballad style is one of those heartbreak songs, Good Day to Cry, which pulls no punches. <<>>
The album ends with the track featuring Jeff Beck, No Place Like Home, that also has Ms. Hart playing piano. It’s another tasteful soul ballad, with a nice a solo by Beck. <<>>
Beth Hart’s new album Fire on the Floor is probably the best yet from this veteran blues-rock singer-songwriter in her nearly quarter century career. She is joined by some great musicians who have been on numerous classic albums in the past, and her songs are first rate – in some ways more musically sophisticated than many in the genre, though lyrically they do tend to be more in the heartbreak mode than not. Ms. Hart’s gritty voice is in great form and she shows her versatility, often within each song. It’s all tastefully done with little compromise or attempt to hook into contemporary commercial hit cliches.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The mix is very good, the sound is clean for the most part and Ms. Hart’s vocals are captured well. But as usual, the sound is volume-compressed too much to make it artificially louder, and at times it reaches the point of sounding overdriven. But that is more the exception than the rule.
Beth Hart, after some initial commercial success here in her home country, is an artist who is probably better known in Europe than in the US, and indeed her new release was issued by a Dutch-based label who specializes in classic style rock. But Fire on the Floor provides a great opportunity for American audiences to get to know her again.
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