Janiva Magness Taps into Vintage Memphis Soul On Adventurous ‘Love Is an Army’ (Album Review)

Janiva Magness has tried many different styles across what is now her 14th album Love Is An Army. Acoustic blues, powerhouse blues, and Americana have all been staples for her. Her 2016 effort, “Love Wins Again” garnered a Grammy nomination. With no less than 26 Blues Music Award nominations and seven wins including Entertainer of the Year, she has, with this album “Love Is an Army,” taken her music to perhaps the highest level of her storied career.

The album bridges the present and the past, with echoes of classic Memphis soul a la The Staples Singers, Americana music, and protest for today’s times. And, just for balance, there are a few love songs too.   Magness reunited with her long-time Grammy-nominated producer Dave Darling for this effort and they recruited top-notch studio musicians like bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Stephen Hodges as well as famed guests.  Charlie Musselwhite blows his signature harp on the Stax-like “Hammer” while North Mississippi Hill county stalwart Cedric Burnside plays guitar and duets on “Home.”  Delbert McClinton duets on the sublime love song “What I Could Do.”  Rusty Young from Poco adds his pedal steel to “On and On” while bluegrass guitar and banjo virtuoso Courtney Hartman from Della Mae colors “Down Below.”  Finally, Texas singer-songwriter Bryan Stephens duets on the title track.  To say the least, it’s an ambitious project.

Magness sings perhaps more passionately here than she ever has, especially on the protest songs which take their inspiration from Al Green and The Staples Singers who rallied against the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.  Magness feels that these times call for a similar approach. “Dave Darling and I had a real sense of urgency when we were writing and recording this album.  What led the album was the lyrics, and the things that are happening right now – the division, the racism, the violence, and our leaders’ lack of concern about basic human issues like health care and poverty.

The two songs that best epitomize those statements are the title track and “Home.” Emphasizing the lyric in “Love Is an Army”, Magness stamps herself as the fighter she’s always been – “You know that I will fight for you/There’s no divine inspiration/Something else calls us here/And our hearts know what to do.”  “Home,” with Cedric Burnside, is a statement against the immigration stance taken by this administration and it’s delivered with plenty of fury.  

Upon a first quick listen, you might guess this is a Mavis Staples album, given the content and its soulful groves.  But, as the album unfolds, it crosses genres and spans almost every conceivable emotion.  Magness offers this as an assessment, “I never thought I’d be a Grammy-nominated artist. But I guess I also feel a certain amount of pressure to follow that with an album that really makes a statement- a statement about who I am and what I believe and the music I love. Love Is an Army does all of that, and I hope it helps somebody else to be as inspired and empowered as I was when we were making it.” Another Grammy nomination may be in offing for this one.

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