From the time she arrived on the scene as a teenager in the mid-90s, it's been clear that blues singer Shemekia Copeland—daughter of the Texas bluesman Johnny "Clyde" Copeland—possesses one of the genre's greatest voices. Even as a kid her instrument seemed fully formed, although she didn't always wield it with precision. She's steadily improved her control over the last decade and a half, and she sounds as nuanced and focused as ever on her latest recording, 33 1/3 (Telarc). Copeland rarely raises the rafters, preferring to imbue her delivery with more subtle gradations of emotion through sharp phrasing, artlessly stretching vowels and uncorking a precise vibratro. She once again worked with producer and guitarist Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers), who provides a kind of mildly generic, polite blues-rock setting that gives Copeland's voice the space and dynamics it demands but otherwise does little to grab your attention—with the exception of the sacred steel solos Roosevelt Collier (the Lee Boys) contributes on a few cuts, and a trademark solo from Buddy Guy on another.
There are some well-chosen covers, including "Can't Let Go," a song written by Randy Weeks and made famous by Lucinda Williams; the Sam Cooke classic "Ain't That Good News"; and Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"—given a wonderfully lilting, swampy reading that shows how Copeland can remake all kinds of material in her own way. But four of the album's 11 songs were cowritten by Wood and Copeland's manager, John Hahn, and I'd say the singer deserves better. The pair wrote the album opener, "Lemon Pie"—which you can check out below—a boilerplate indictment of American income disparity that Copeland nonchalantly owns, while their "Somebody Else's Jesus" is a hokey rip on self-styled religious profiteers that sounds like a cross between the Rolling Stones and Three Dog Night. She sounds best on the more familiar repertoire, but not because those tunes are familiar—it's because they're much better than the middling contemporary fare that makes up the bulk of the album. I don't know who Chris Long is, but his song "Hangin' Up" proves that the singer can kill on current material if it matches her talent. Copeland performs Friday night at SPACE in Evanston.