Shemekia Copeland's third and latest outing, Talking to Strangers (Alligator), provides welcome reassurance for critics (such as myself) who've been growing increasingly uneasy with the young singer's apparent willingness to compromise her extraordinary gifts and take the easy route of rocked-out bellowing. Abetted by producer Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, whose funk-driven, richly textured arrangements both propel her and leave her room to breathe, Copeland reveals a newfound penchant for nuance all over the album. A song like "Livin' on Love," for instance, could easily have been a boilerplate bone cruncher, but rather than try to out-shout the whole band, Copeland brings simmering erotic angst to lines like "Had to have your kisses 'fore I starved to death." On the jubilant "Sholanda's," set to a rollicking off-center cadence that recalls Rebennack's classic version of "Iko Iko," she evokes the funky sisterhood in a neighborhood beauty parlor ("Got the gossip, they never fail / Like who's at home and who's in jail....Hear words of wisdom, great advice / 'Keep your eyes open and your legs shut tight'"). And "Don't Whisper" is the most rawly emotional track she's yet allowed herself: half begging, half demanding, she summons smoldering power even as she looks heartbreak dead in the eye, beginning with a clear, vulnerable bell-like tone and building to an explosive wail. At times, it's obvious that Copeland's technique is still developing--the glottal stops she inserts into phrases like "yuh always hear it said" (on the title tune) and "thuh only one" ("Too Much Traffic") sound particularly clunky. On the other hand, she negotiates challenging melodies with ease, swooping confidently through churchy melisma and never losing a bit of resonance on high passages. It remains to be seen whether Copeland can bring her new sophistication to the stage, but there's no denying the exciting leaps she's taken in the studio. Monday, September 16, 8 PM (opening for the Rolling Stones with Dr. John), Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence; 773-561-9500 or 312-559-1212. Wednesday, September 18, 7 PM (free in-store performance), Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0564. Thursday, September 19, 6 PM, northeast terrace, Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore; 312-922-9410.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.