Toni Price

Midnight Pumpkin (Antone's)

Through four albums, Austin's Toni Price has meandered through a myriad of twists and turns -- and encountered the occasional dead end -- while dabbling with various styles of American roots music. She's sashayed through fields of bluegrass, lighted hearts aflame with '30s-era torch songs, knocked back a few with some 12-bar blues, and two-stepped like a chart-topping country chick.

"Out the Front Door," which led off her 1999 release, Low Down and Up, gave us a glimpse of the adventurous Price who could coax fire and ice out of her vocal chords not only on the same record but in the same phrase. Yet she relied most often on her specialty -- the quiet, sparse ballad or the jazzy, mellow retro-swing number reminiscent of collaborator Champ Hood's long-ago Uncle Walt's Band.

With Midnight Pumpkin, Price emerges with the confidence of a Cinderella who has finally grown comfortable wearing those exquisite glass slippers. Only this ain't no fairy tale. Price's performance here won't vanish when the clock strikes 12. It's the zenith of her music career, 13 tracks that, for the first time in her recording career, compel the listener to follow her vocal journey all the way from coast to coast.

It's no secret that Price gets off on guitar licks, as Keith Richards's name is tattooed on her arm. Her old six-string gang is all here. Casper Rawls, Scrappy Jud Newcomb and Hood, among others, are in the mix, as is the usual guest heavy hitter. This time it's guitarist James Burton, of Elvis Presley fame, on wood Dobro.

But this time, something is different about Price. Her voice doesn't just carry the melody, it becomes a finely tuned instrument that she commands masterfully. In the opening cut, Jerry Williams's "Start of Somethin' Good," she slides easily from falsetto to a breathy growl, while still retaining her trademark curt phrasing.

Equally important is the fact that she has chosen perhaps the best collection of songs yet to interpret, not to mention that Price and co-producer Derek O'Brien, longtime guitarist with Lou Ann Barton, have gone over the top with the arrangements. There are plenty of guitar licks here that capture the ear as fast as the lyrics. The haunting ballad "Something in the Water," for example, is a memorable pairing of Price's bedroom whisperings and David Grissom's electric guitar psychedelia.

It's plain that Price is having a damn fine time. When she and ex-Storyville vocalist Malford Milligan perform a powerhouse duet on Joe Tex's "I Want to Do (Everything for You)," you can almost picture her kicking her chair right off the stage while she and Milligan shout it out toe to toe. Price also shows off a tenor growl that would do her Austin mentor Barton proud.

One of Antone's most popular records was 1990's Dreams Come True, a collaboration between Barton, Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli. If there is ever a follow-up, Toni Price has definitely earned an invite.

 
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