Ruth Brown
R + B = Ruth Brown
Bullseye Blues/Rounder 9583
Ruth Brown's belting voice -- the one that produced the classic whine against domestic injustice, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" -- has all but evaporated in recent years. But, taking cues from Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, Brown gradually has been adapting to the change. Today, her voice is more complex, expressing humor and wisdom without ever sounding trite or boring.

She picks excellent material here, opening with a loungey jazz version of Los Lobos' steaming blues-rocker "That Train Don't Stop Here." As the song winds down, Brown winks, jokingly listing many different types of classic blues and jazz trains, from the A Train to Coltrane. Her duet with Bonnie Raitt on "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" sounds like a coffee-table chat between two women who have seen just about every grotesque man and have determined to escape them all.

Those songs, plus an equally charming duet with R&B singer Johnny Adams on Willie Mabon's "I Don't Know," are the attention-getters. In between are strong, straightforward big-band songs that tread the line between R&B and jazz, with Brown's deep voice mingling with trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis on "Destination Heartbreak" and guitarist Duke Robillard on the teary "Too Little Too Late." On that song, Brown's voice injects the perfect touch of indignant uncertainty: "I don't doubt that you're sorry," she sings, but it's clear the hapless heartbreaker is toast.

The prevailing theme of R + B = Ruth Brown is, unsurprisingly, dealing with lost love. Brown communicates her pain effectively, but there's more to her than that. There's a certain power in her voice, a liberating been-there-done-that feeling that transforms every unnamed male character into a weakling. It's more potent, in many ways, than the belting in her 1950 classic "Teardrops From My Eyes."

-- Steve Knopper

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Boulder, CO, USA.