Desire is the title of the appealing new recording from singer/songwriter Lauren Mitchell. Desire is Mitchell’s third recording and it showcases her talent with an enhanced musical focus aided by a fresh sympathetic band on this project two years in the making.
The production and drum work is masterfully fulfilled by seasoned veteran Tony Braunagel. The other highly skilled veteran sidemen consist of Reggie McBride on bass guitar, Jimmy Pugh on keyboards, and the duo of Johnny Lee Schell and Joshua Sklair handling the lion’s share of the guitar parts. Also, the young Costa Rican blues guitarist Jose Ramirez guests on four tracks. The superb horn section is comprised of Joe Sublett on tenor saxophone and Darrell Leonard on trumpet, and they add some great gusto on five tracks. The incredible Lenny Castro is on board providing his usual elite percussion skills on five tracks. The pleasing background vocal chores are mainly carried by Maxanne Lewis, Kudisan Kai, and Leslie Smith, while youthful soul singer Melodye Perry provides a backing vocal on one tune (“Anti-Love Song”). The release is a blend of clever cover interpretations merged with Lauren Mitchell original co-writes (four with writing partner and fellow Floridian singer/songwriter Sheri Nadleman) that spans the genres or blues, soul, funk, and a small taste of gospel.
Tony Braunagel’s truly outstanding production delivers the palpable impression that Lauren is clandestinely singing to the listener. Braunagel has aided in propelling the careers of many artists throughout the years, taking them under his wings, and he occupies a wonderful chemistry with Lauren Mitchell on Desire. In fact, if feels to me that there must exist a mutual admiration between Tony and Lauren; it is tangible, as solid as concrete. Braunagel fetched Leonard, Sublett, Schell, and Castro from amongst his comrades in The Phantom Blues Band for this special project that overall has the relaxed feel of a well-fitting pair of blue jeans.
Mitchell opens with an earthy tribute to the late, great Etta James with a cover of one of Etta’s lesser known Chess recordings “(I Don’t Need Nobody To Tell Me) How To Treat My Man.” Etta James is rightfully revered as a towering figure in the pantheon of ’60s (and later) soul/blues. Lauren approximates Etta’s arrogant soulful swagger with this great rowdy choice to lead off the disc swinging for the fences. It’s a real treat to hear Mitchell illuminating Etta James’ songs. It is readily apparent that Ms. Mitchell is not just a casual fan, but rather a student who has learned her lessons well. It abets that Braunagel, Pugh, Schell, and Josh Sklair all closely worked with Etta James. Furthermore, Sklair won Grammys for his production of Etta’s Let’s Roll and Blues To The Bone albums while enjoying a twenty-five year tenure as guitarist and musical director for the R&B icon. Sklair sets this song out as the fine guitar on this first song is solely the crafty work of Johnny Lee Schell. The entire ensemble shines on this one.
The second track is a joyous Mitchell/Nadleman original entitled “Soul Music” that is as warm and vivacious as a June sunset on a Florida beach. The melody is infectious as Pugh’s Hammond B-3 organ is joined by guitars of Josh and Jose and the brilliant brass section to give the song a winning swing while the guitar performance is reminiscent of the melodic work of Dickey Betts. The rhythm section of Braunagle and McBride sway solid and steady. The lyrics are direct and simple, including such commonplace love song staples “dance the night away” and “no other man can satisfy me.” Chorus lyrics that disclose “like my daddy used to play” appear to be autobiographic in nature. The background vocals provide polish while Mitchell elevates the song to a heavenly level by singing with a delightful and sultry charm. This song my personal favorite at present.
The chosen title track, “Desire,” provides one of Lauren’s most memorable vocal performances: simply mystical and alluring with a slight grit that isn’t as prevalent on the majority of the tracks. The lyrics are inspirational and motivational in nature, suggesting the adoption of a never give up attitude. Regardless of whether you’re “worn out, wasted, feel like you don’t matter, beat up, bruised, broken and shattered” you can still persist and “walk through the fire” and ultimately “rise up from the ashes, and believe in your desire.” Schell opens the song with a Link Wray “Rumble” tone on his guitar and a steady heartbeat is provided by the bass and drums to fuel the smoldering fire. A chorus of hand claps and background vocals lends the tune a smidgen of gospel flavor. At approximately the 2 minute 30 second mark Steve Fister joins the action with some ringing bottle-neck slide work, teaming with Josh for a twin guitar lineup. Lauren is precise in her phrasing, and I love her seductive enunciation of the word “desire.”
“Jump Into My Fire” was written by Jana King and Johnny Cobb and recorded by Etta James in 1989 (later memorably covered by The Nighthawks) on Seven Year Itch, an album which many consider to be her masterpiece. My favorite Etta album is the smoky blues of Blues To The Bone, but any Etta offering is choice artistry. On this song the listener is presented with a prime sample of Mitchell’s proficient knack of channeling Etta’s rare ability to place heartfelt passion into each and every line of a song. The pace is speedier than Etta’s version which works very well here, making a great song better. Schell and Sklair and the horn arrangement are splendid.
Some nice bluesy interplay between piano and guitar along with a punchy horn arrangement add to the enjoyment on a fine tune from Aretha Franklin’s 1968 Lady Soul titled “Good To Me As I Am To You.” It opens with plaintive guitar and leisurely pace, before it opens up into a powerful presentation. It would make serve as a good slow-dance tune with nice showing of piano and sax. Franklin’s version was best known as being guitar great Eric Clapton’s first US session. To attempt a cover of one of the Queen of Soul’s most recognizable songs takes extreme confidence, and Lauren has this trait amongst her attributes. She doesn’t attempt to replicate Aretha, instead just exhibiting her own vocal timbre which contains the essence of Soul.
“Feels So Good” is a remake of a song written by Tomcat Blake, and it’s a soul filled delight delivered with a retro Stax Records sound that sounds eerily like the members of Booker T. & The MG’s were employed for the recording (high praise). Wisely, Lauren doesn’t attempt to oversell her vocals which leads to an authentic sincerity. The background vocalists add flavor with their “oooohs” and “aaaahs” and “feels so good” interjections as Mitchell sings with a soul grabbing clout.
“Stand Up Like A Man” was an original b-side for Betty LaVette in 1966. On this version Josh Sklair’s guitar work is blues drenched nectar and Tony pounds and kicks his drum kit to cut a great groove. Mitchell purrs and growls giving a display of her undeniable talent while the background girls are added to the mix perfectly with their calls of “stand up”. My only complaint on this song (a minor quibble) is the brevity. In concert that quibble could be easily corrected allowing the members to stretch out and extend that massive groove.
“Today” is a powerful moving soulful ballad about the universal emotion of love lost. It was a collaboration between accomplished songwriters Greg Sutton (Lone Justice), the late John Herron and the ever-honest, expressive Beth Hart. Lyrics include: “I thought I’d seen some things/I’ve seen miracles and dreams/and I’ve never lost my way/until today, today/I thought I’d seen it all/but now it all has changed/nothing helps the pain/not today, today.” The musical backing is minimal, giving Mitchell ample space to wrap her velvet vocal around this melancholy song that states “things will never ever be the way they used to be.”
“It’s about recognizing a painful moment and then sitting with that pain, holding it, and hopefully allowing yourself to move through it.” ~ Lauren Mitchell on the significance of “Today”
The self-affirmation anthem “I Ain’t Been (Licked Yet)” was written by the ace team of Ashford & Simpson and was most notably performed by Diana Ross. Here the song is powerfully driven by Lauren’s soulful jaunty declarations that she is a woman determined to rise above and beyond. Once more the horn arrangement and the background vocals are effective blended into the mix, but the spotlight remains on Ms. Mitchell’s vocal charisma.
“Anti Love Song” is a track recorded by Betty Maybry Davis, who before the release of her recording debut was best known as the second wife of Jazz icon Miles Davis, and cover model on one of his albums. The unrestrained Betty had a slew of great musicians on her debut, not the least of which was bassist Larry Graham who many credit with the invention of the funkified thumpin’ and pluckin’ technique. Reggie McBride is more than up to the task of replicating Graham, while Lauren is a vastly more polished vocalist than Betty ever was.
A gospel song entitled “Bridge Of My Dreams” is a further specimen of the range of Lauren Mitchell and has a rollicking piano escort. This genre comes naturally to Lauren, as she got her first public experience singing with a church choir. “Lead Me On” is a Mitchell/Nadleman/Braunagel composition that pays tribute to all the R&B/Soul singers who have preceded Mitchell. It is a ballad with seemingly sarcastic lyrics. To me, it is the protagonist in the song that is the one doing the teasing without following through with the pleasing. Mitchell’s vocal is commanding and sung with a musky pheromone filled vigor.
Mitchell ends the album with another Mitchell/Nadleman original; this one entitled “Brown Liquor.” One might think from the title that the lyrics would examine the debated topic about the hangover consequences of drinking fermented brown liquor (rich with congener chemicals); as opposed to the consumption of clear liquors which don’t pack the same hangover penalties. Instead it relates a morning after. Here, and throughout the album, Lauren displays a superior use of vocal inflection to masterfully shade her singing like very few have accomplished. I offer up her pronunciation of Grand Marnier as a prime representative of her skill. It’s a funky song that is guaranteed to grow on you.
Desire shows Lauren Mitchell brandishing a vocal style that doesn’t fit any cookie-cutter mold. She mostly eschews the gravelly gritty effect favored by a bulk of the female blues singers on today’s scene, instead favoring more of the sultry smoothness of Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt. Much like Tedeschi and Raitt, Lauren doesn’t confine herself to songs falling into the Blues idiom. Throughout Desire Mitchell gives one sultry lust-filled performance after another, giving just the right dose of mischievous passion to prove irresistible to any male listener who is not in a coma. Desire is a showcase of her virtuosity, intelligence and breadth, and is a powerful musical excursion.