Monday, May 11, 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie - Power in the Blood

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (Gypsy Boy/True North)

“There is power in the blood”? No kidding, especially when you’re Buffy Sainte-Marie, a 74-year-old woman who’s been making records for more than 50 years, a woman who has never sacrificed her role as a protest singer, an educator (she has a Ph.D. in education), and a curious artist fusing modern sounds with traditional music, in ways virtually none of her peers continue to do. Only Neil Young is louder, but even he’s been making the same two records for decades now, whereas Buffy continues to evolve—or, in her term, “ripen.” 

Oh, and incidentally, she's also a woman who has physically aged even better than Tina Turner—who is two years older than Buffy, and now retired. Buffy Sainte-Marie is not retiring. Far from it.

Power in the Blood is only her third album of new material since her 1992 comeback (which followed 16 years away from recording studios, for a variety of reasons—though during that time, she won an Oscar for co-writing “Up Where We Belong,” sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes). She covers all her bases: modern electro, country, plaintive folk, old campfire songs, reggae, blues rock and slick pop. She once again employs British producer Chris Birkett, with whom she’s worked since 1992, but also pulls in Torontonians Jon Levine (K’naan, Nelly Furtado and Michael Philip Wojewoda (Rheostatics, Ashley MacIsaac), with Wojewoda mixing the whole record and giving it a sonic consistency—and a punch that’s sadly lacking on her records with Birkett.

That all adds up to a bold musical statement and perhaps her best-ever assembly of songs outside of 1996’s re-recorded greatest hits collection. If much of her modern work has sounded dated, shackled to keyboard presets of the day, Power in the Blood roars to life. The title track, featuring Alabama 3 (best known for The Sopranos theme), with a thumping techno backbeat and Vocoders, sounds like it’s trying a bit too hard, but Buffy makes it her own—and it’s thunderous. Even the cheeziest song here, “Love Charms,” coasts along with the cool of a classic Sade track; if Buffy doesn’t score a hit with it herself, someone is bound to scoop it up sooner than later. (This is a woman, of course, who’s been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand to Neko Case and Owen Pallett.)

Four songs hail from earlier in her career: the uplifting closer “Carry It On”—which should be the closing number in a Broadway jukebox musical of Buffy music—is a rewrite of 1976’s “Look at the Facts”; “Generation” first appeared on 1974’s Buffy, though it’s been updated to reference Idle No More; “Not the Lovin Kind” appeared in an almost identical arrangement on 1972’s Moonshot, though the guitar of Ian Blurton (Change of Heart, Public Animal) here is a welcome addition; and “It’s My Way” was the title track of her 1964 debut, and lyrics like ,“I’ve got my own seeds / I got my own weeds / I got my own harvest that I’ve sown” mean a lot more from a woman who’s lived 74 active and fascinating years, as opposed to 24. She also nods to her late husband, Jack Nietzche, by adapting a melody he wrote in 1990 for a long-forgotten soundtrack on the haunting “Orion.”

Most striking is her cover of UB40’s “Sing Our Own Song”: here is an Aboriginal American woman covering Brits playing Jamaican music and writing a song about South Africa. So whose song is it exactly? I, for one, had completely forgotten that UB40 wrote decent songs of their own instead of just doing reggae covers. Buffy resurrects this song of struggle, throws in a vocal sample from the powwow group Northern Cree (also heard in A Tribe Called Red tracks) and modifies the lyrics: “Native America run, we will no longer succumb to oil and to ore / we will be Idle No More.” Needless to say, only a woman as ballsy as Buffy Sainte-Marie would even attempt to pull something like this off—and she does.

But she’s not just borrowing from others and her past. The four all-new original songs here are just as strong as the rest of the record: the aforementioned “Love Charms,” the folkie ballad “Ke Sakihitin Awasis,” the country ode to her Hawaiian home (“Farm in the Middle of Nowhere”) and “The Uranium War,” a worthy follow-up to what is perhaps her most powerful protest song (with apologies to “Universal Soldier”): 1992’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

If you don’t know much about Buffy Sainte-Marie—and, frankly, most people don’t—chances are she’s not what you think she is. She’s not just a protest singer. She’s not just a writer of sometimes sappy love songs. She’s not just an Aboriginal artist and activist. She’s not just an old hippie. She is all those things, but she’s even more. She shouldn’t have to prove herself, although she certainly has here. There’s plenty more power in that blood.

Download: “Generation,” “Love Charms,” “Carry It On”

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