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Shemekia Copeland

Talking to Strangers (Alligator Records)

Maybe the folks who still like to talk mess about Johnny Clyde Copeland's little girl would prefer that she go into exile for, say, 20 years and re-emerge with the chronological credibility she supposedly lacks. Even better, they could just get over it and accept the fact that the 23-year-old singer with the sonorous voice isn't going anywhere except where she damn well pleases.

On Talking to Strangers, her third album, Shemekia Copeland's chops get the star treatment at the hands of producer Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), who provides a more sophisticated repertoire for her natural talent. Yet despite the studio sheen and glossy production, not to mention the near-flawless work of the high-priced backing musicians working the sessions, Rebennack lets Copeland find her own way. He even leaves in tiny performance flaws, notably in "When a Woman's Had Enough," revealing (what a surprise) that Shemekia's control and modulation aren't completely developed, just as Koko Taylor and Aretha Franklin still had some woodshedding to do before they turned 25.

That said, Shemekia is a pretty fast learner. She wraps her voice around the more intricate arrangements and seems quite at ease in the grown-up environment Rebennack provides. Shemekia's longtime songwriting guru, John Hahn, brings several standout tracks to the party, notably the showcase ballad "Happy Valentine's Day," in which Rebennack's sultry, feathery piano rolls are just the right salt for his young prodigy's pepper as she purrs and howls her lament.

Copeland's raw talent meets Dr. John's sophistication on Talking to Strangers.
Copeland's raw talent meets Dr. John's sophistication on Talking to Strangers.

Elsewhere, Shemekia burns authoritatively through the first four tracks, and has plenty of fun with "Sholanda's," a co-write with Hahn that bounces along with slide guitar and a Crescent City shuffle. On "Should Have Come Home," she exudes confidence in a song that Bonnie Raitt would love to steal. On the title cut, she goes old-school with a blaxploitation flick backdrop that coulda-shoulda been the showcase single on the Jackie Brown soundtrack. And in the Rebennack duet, "The Push I Need," her words aptly reflect having found a kindred spirit at the studio controls: "You know my heart / and everything in it / you know what I can and can't do / you know my limits / and you never ask the impossible of me / you're givin' me the push I need."

She closes out the set with "Pie in the Sky," a tasty helping of some of her daddy's old jumpin' blues, which underlines the album's message. There's never been any doubt where Shemekia Copeland came from, but with Talking to Strangers, she lays claim to where she's headed.

 
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