To her credit, Carolyn Wonderland makes no bones about the Janis Joplin comparisons that, somewhat accurately, describe her whiskey-soaked voice and tough blues/soul musical palette. In fact, this album's opening track is a relatively obscure Joplin cover of "What Good Can Drinkin' Do" that she delivers with requisite bad girl swagger. Well known for her exciting live show, Wonderland has had less success capturing that edge on album. But a combination of producers including Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, and even ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith successfully frame the Texas native's songs in a raw, rootsy, but professionally recorded environment that lets her vocals shine and gives her band room to kick out the jams on blues, R&B, New Orleans funk, swamp rock, and the righteous gospel that's at the heart of her multiple influences. The tracks are divided equally between covers and Wonderland originals, thereby displaying both her songwriting and interpretive chops. She can wail with the best of them, but it's her control on tunes such as "Usurper," with its thumping drums, and the closing acoustic country of "Shine On," the album's most reserved moment, that shows the restraint of a great singer. She brings churchy soul to her own "St. Marks," an easygoing midtempo rocker that sounds like an old soul cover, and tears it up on blues classics such as Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" and "Two Trains," applying the latter's words to the standard "You Don't Love Me" riff. She's obviously on fire performing straight-ahead blues, her band is rocking, and the arrangement balances her in-your-face blast with a far more subtle style. It's that ability to rein in her brassy bellow, especially on a fiery gospel take of Vince Welnick/Robert Hunter's "Golden Stairs" (a cool, under-the-radar find), that makes her such a formidable presence and provides this album the dynamics of style and mood that make it a diverse yet perfect example of what Wonderland does best.
Peace Meal Review
by Hal Horowitz