Susan Tedeschi: “Back to the River”
By titling her new album Back to the River, Susan Tedeschi hints at some sort of retreat, a back to basics approach that her record label gleefully plays up by placing a sticker on the front cover that heralds the album as a “return to her signature sound.” And it’s a fair enough statement, on one level– the album has more in common with her older recordings than with the one that can directly before it, 2005’s Hope and Desire— but it also sells the artist a bit short, downplaying just how much forward momentum her career has had. After all, Tedeschi’s albums have each carved out different nooks within the same aesthetic, making each new release feel exploratory, as though she’s carefully filling out and expanding the borders of her sound, each album emphasizing a different facet of her artistry. So while Back to the River is, in many ways, the flip side of the album that preceded it, the two records are ultimately triumphs for the same reason– namely, that they find Tedeschi coming into her own as an artist and showing us just what she’s capable of.
Hope and Fear, despite being a covers collection, was essentially a singer-songwriter affair. Produced by– who else?– Joe Henry, the album peeled back the layers of raw, bluesy guitar rock for a more understated and elegant collection that emphasized texture, Tedeschi’s gifts as a singer and interpreter, and her grounding in blues, country, and gospel. Henry, of course, is simply the best there is at producing albums like that, and by leading Tedeschi through stellar selections from Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, and the Rolling Stones, producer and artist collaborated to create the impression– real or otherwise– that she could sing just about anything.
But if that album was all about showing off her nuance and sophistication as a singer and interpreter of songs, Back to the River is an album designed to showcase her sheer, raw power, both as a vocalist and, for the first time, as a writer. This time there’s only one cover– a funky, horn-drenched reading of Allen Toussaint’s “There’s a Break in the Road”–and while the album is coming from the same place, deeply rooted in classic blues, rock, and R&B, there’s not so much emphasis on texture and intimacy as there is on balls-out guitar muscle and greasy, gritty blues-rock workouts. It’s as if the last album has simply had the volume cranked all the way up, which has the unique effect of making this one sound very much of a piece with Tedeschi’s previous work while also helping it stand out in her canon as a very special distillation of her ever-burgeoning powers as singer, performer, and composer.
Since Tedeschi had a hand in writing almost all of these songs, and since the album is marked by blustering, ballsy performances that were mostly missing from the last album, it stands as the clearest, loudest statement of her creative identity yet– and, ironically, it’s also the Tedeschi album that most welcomes the Bonnie Raitt comparisons that have always dogged her. She’s cut from the same cloth as Raitt– both artists are bluesy, rootsy rock chicks who base their music in the blues but also know how to write big pop hooks– but Tedeschi actually pushes both extremes of her music in ways that Raitt generally doesn’t, simultaneously going deeper into the blues and heartland rock with grittier, greasier performances and more untamed singing but also developing sharper, more addictive hooks, which makes Back to the River both very powerful and very memorable. Sometimes Tedeschi focuses on one unique side of her music– turning up the heat for sweaty rockers like “Talking About” or funky guitar workouts like the title cut, or playing up the pop hooks on the populist, feel-good anthem “People”– but the album is at its best when the two sides meet and join together, as with the slow-burning, rootsy lament “700 Houses,” a song that’s catchy without sacrificing its grit or its authenticity.
Tedeschi, who is married to guitar slinger Derek Trucks, is a fine player in her own right, but her true genius increasingly seems to come from her choices in collaborators. Henry was the perfect match for Hope and Desire, and here she finds another perfect partner, George Drakoulias, whose work with similarly groove-centered, soulful rock women like Tift Merritt has made him a master. He makes these songs sound like the barn-burning brawlers and anthems that they really are, bringing a brass section to play up the sweaty, funky underpinnings of Tedeschi’s writing and making sure the electric guitars sound plenty loud and raucous.
Meanwhile, Tedeschi herself sounds for all the world like a genuinely satisfied woman– something you don’t hear very much in the blues, but it works for her. She sings about home and family, and though she’s obviously still hungry as an artist– with each new album, she reveals her powers to be even greater than what she’s previously displayed– there’s a confidence here that borders on celebration, as though this is the album she’s always wanted to make. And whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly the album she’s been working toward, the perfect next step for an artist who’s never been one to stand still for very long.