Review of “Tell It Like It Is” | February 2013
Written by: Mark Uricheck
On Tell It Like It Is, Philadelphia based blues siren Deb Callahan picks up where she left off with 2008’s Grace & Grit, which was itself a roots inflected tour de force. Callahan’s songs (most of which are co-written with longtime producer Chris Arms and guitarist Allen James) range from tawdry speakeasy to Sunday morning celebration.
Callahan’s voice has the spiked fervor of contemporary Susan Tedeschi, but it’s richer and smoother. Stylistically she’s picked up a lot from one of her earlier influences, Nina Simone – Simone’s squirming rhythms and hypnotic vocals reverberate in Callahan’s music. Analogies can only go so far though and with each release (this is her fourth) she becomes more distinctive. On this disc, cut at Philly’s Studio 4 with Legendary engineer Phil Nicolo (Pretenders, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, among others) Callahan is aided by a diverse team of Philadelphia musicians. Guitarist Allen James spent time with local Philly greats such as Robert Hazard, while drummer Tom Walling’s jazz background offsets bassist Garry Lee’s experience in theatrical Philly rockers the Daves. Guests like Robert Randolph Band alum Jason Crosby (who provides Hammond B-3 and violin) and Matt Cappy on trumpet round out (and fill out) a sound that is at once provocatively playful and steeped in female empowerment.
The disc kicks off with the funky Gonna Get There. Sun is Rising evokes a sleepy rural, delta morning with a gospel choir-like chorus, aided by the backing vocals of Charlene Holloway. A take charge cover of Aileen Bullock’s Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeter (also covered by Nina Simone and Ike & Tina Turner) is peppered with staccato instrumental breaks and a groove that will shale any dance floor. Sweet Words is cabaret, piano bar-type fare, Callahan whispering her saccharine wishes to someone called “sugar pie”,” “honey,” and “lemon drop.” Walling’s gently pattering brushes and Cappy’s wheedling, muted trumpet nail the late night jazz club aura.
Deb Callahan is a shouter, a crooner, a soul-belter and above all a gifted lyrical interpreter. She could sing the phone book and make it sound good.