Man, when you give your CD a title like The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster you’re really asking for people to give you that extra bit of scrutiny. I understand that the title wasn’t Ms. Foster’s idea…but whoever had the idea they were right on the money because Ruthie Foster is indeed phenomenal and this record is mighty fine proof of that fact.
Her voice is strong, vibrant, and utterly soulful (think Joan Armatrading with Sam Cooke’s impeccable phrasing and Mavis Staples’ slow burning passion but wholly original just the same) all at once and she puts those amazing pipes to excellent use on this collection of original songs and canny covers that seamlessly blends soul, blues, and folk music into a very tasty musical gumbo.
The CD comes out strong with the 1-2-3 punch of “’Cuz I’m Here”, a righteous mid-tempo blues, her self-penned “Heal Yourself”, a joyful up-tempo, life-affirming R&B, and a truly remarkable…yearning and blues-drenched…cover of Lucinda Williams’ wonderful “Fruits of my Labor”.
And by the time she follows that up by taking you to church with a sterling a cappella take on Son House’s “People Grinnin’ in Your Face” and a sweet and sure version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above my Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” you know that you might as surrender because the...yes...phenomenal Ms. Foster has hooked you already…at least that was my experience.
Her original songs more than hold their own with the covers. “Harder Than the Fall”, a gently loping blues ballad, manages to be rueful and hopeful at the same time while the jumping “Beaver Creek Blues” thumps along on an irresistible beat and “Mama Said” is a sultry and supple slice of Delta blues.
“Phenomenal Woman”, with words written by Maya Angelou, is a righteous celebration of womanhood that features one of the more urgent and compelling vocals on the disc. “A Friend Like You”, a sweet love song, finds Foster’s effectively understated vocal bolstered by some lovely organ and guitar work.
The disc ends on a lovely grace note with Foster’s own bittersweet “I Don’t Know What to Do with my Heart” which features the compelling honesty of the lyrics underscored to grand effect by piano, guitar, drums, and a string quartet.
What a delightful and engaging record …yeah, it is downright phenomenal indeed.