There is a mystery solved upon hearing the new album “Strange Sunshine” from Indianapolis’ Jennie Devoe. From the title cut’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” echoes of the opener to the weary-but-powerful “All This Love” that closes Devoe’s new album, she takes leaps of tempo and the occasional genre, but never loses the listener. We take the trip – and do because her voice is so damn expressive. Makes you want to hold her hand and just listen to her sing.
It is the voice – the soulful, raspy, yet sing-like-a-bird voice – which Devoe and producer John Parish (Tracy Chapman, PJ Harvey, and Devoe’s 2004 album “Fireworks and Karate Supplies”) smartly push up in the mix. She’s a tough. She’s introspective. She’s tells her version on the truth.
They fill the remaining space (but not all of it – this isn’t a too-much-is-better record) with grooves that rock, gospel where necessary and some dirty blues.
Devoe and Parish have succeeded in creating a record that touches on influences, but never falls completely into what I call the “Lenny Kravitz Abyss”. That’s when an artist makes a pretty good record but listeners can’t stop hearing the songs and artists that were the main influences for the album. Early Lenny records were really pretty good, but so derivative it hurt him, at least until his third or fourth record and we realized “Oh. OK. That’s Lenny”.
But “Strange Sunshine” plays it right, giving us familiar notes and chords and ooh’s and aah’s that hit the gut, reminding us of how the best music is made – honoring the past while pushing sounds forward. The mix of Jennie’s soul and voice blends with music bubbling with an undercurrent of an unpretentious musical history.
Drummer John Wittman rides Ringo-solid with more swing, while Greg McQuirk’s Hammond B3 , Wurlitzer and piano playing is a constant thrill. His interplay with the guitars of Paul Holdman and Parish dives into the musical white space and subtly colors it with sounds of confidence and flexibilty. Church sounds. Stax sounds. Motown sounds.
The bass-and-drums of “Exit 229” make you want to swing your hips, as background “whoo-whoo’s” and handclaps support Devoe’s tale of the good that can come from driving all night. “Butterfly” (the first single) is slice of AAA/Americana pop that has Jennie gradually pushing her voice harder, and grabbing the song’s great sugary hook when it hits the chorus.
“Nobody Love You” is a retro lounge sound, circa 1940, all piano and Amy Winehouse, minus the sloppiness, heroin and makeup. It fades into the blues of “Shoulda Stayed” and the stark acoustic guitar and Hammond B3 opening of the hymn “I Break Down”. It burns. Amen.
Devoe wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs on the album, with the Etheridge-like “Foolproof” contributed by another strong female artist, blues and rock guitarist Shannon Curfman.
Sure, I want to like music that is made locally (even if they went to Bath, England to record the record, like Devoe did for this one). And yeah, I have been fooled by a record and the first couple listens I take.
There is no fooling on “Strange Sunshine” – Jennie Devoe has made her best record ever. No mystery why. It is smart and playful, the past mixing with the now, the dirt grandly mixing with the shiny. And it is the sound of Devoe’s voice that makes it all come together.