If you crossed Joss Stone with Stevie Ray Vaughan, you might come back with something very much like Joanne Shaw Taylor and I suppose that's why I've liked her (ignoring for the moment I'm not a real big fan of Stone) since hearing her debut record White Sugar. Taylor followed Sugar with Diamonds In The Dirt where she stayed very much rooted in the Stone-SRV hybrid and as appealing as it was, it could get repetitive. Both records were comprised largely of original material and the results were mixed. These would be major issues for me with some artists but for some reason they seem more like quibbles with Taylor. I like her voice and playing and dug those first two records even with those qualifiers.
Taylor changed producers for *Almost Always Never, her third album released last year, recording it in Austin, TX with Mike McCarthy. Taylor said McCarthy pushed her from her comfort zone and you can hear differences in the first few songs on the record. "Soul Station" pushes beyond six minutes, allowing her to really stretch out with a fiery, extended solo at the end of the song as David Garza, Billy White, and JJ Johnson bash away behind her. The rideout lick feels more like an improvised jam on stage than a song recorded in a studio. The leadwork still has a strong SRV influence but the playing is bold and energetic. This song more closely resembles her previous work than anything else on the record. "Beautifully Broken" slows the pace and guitars are layered and textured. The rhythm guitars chime and the solo is a more relaxed, lyrical lead.
"You Should Stay, I Should Go" and "Army Of One" build on an acoustic rhythm, giving yet another sonic dimension to the record and taking her in a direction not often heard on her previous records. "Piece Of The Sky" has shades of Jimi Hendrix ballads like "Little Wing" and "Angel," and on songs like "A Hand In Love" and "Jealousy" take advantage of Garza's considerable keyboard skill to provide different textures.
The lead guitar work is perhaps the most consistent component on the album. Her influences can still be heard in her playing but her ability to execute solos has taken a step forward and more often sound like her channeling those influences rather than mimicking them. "Soul Station" and "Tied & Bound" are explosive workouts and the battle of Taylor's acoustic lead against Garza's mandolin strumming on "Army Of One" is another highlight.
The more varied sonic palette is a welcome step forward but there are still areas Taylor needs to continue to develop. She doesn't sound like she's trying to sing like Joss Stone (or anyone) but her vocal attack isn't dynamic. She has a hell of a voice but doesn't push or restrain it enough over the course of a song or even from one song to the next. Her songwriting voice is also an area with room for further development as she too often relies on generic or predictable phrasing in songs about love and personal struggle.
Almost Always Never represents a step forward for Taylor, just not as significant a progression as I'd hoped. I still feel as though I like Taylor as an artist more than I do her actual records but I do like them, this one included. She remains on the cusp of taking her work to the heights her talent hints at and I'm looking forward to her next release,.