Shemekia Copeland continues to explore Americana through a strong blues influence on Uncivil War, a charmingly rootsy and rocking album of tasty guitar, bold lyrics, and, of course, Copeland’s powerhouse voice, which drives the entire album.
Uncivil War picks up where 2018’s America’s Child left off, and while both included lots of impressive guests, War uses less guest singers and more guest musicians, allowing Copeland to own the entire album. The subtle pivot shows how fans are coming to Copeland for her distinctive sound that’s roots without the country twang. Copeland, the daughter of Texas blues great Johnny Copeland, grew up in the northeast, and while she pulls from a lot of blues influences, which pulled from the South, Uncivil War has a unique northern flavor.
Copeland demonstrates it many times over the course of the album, but the most interesting example comes on Copeland’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” The Stones original is an ode to keeping a woman down. It’s solid music, but a problematic message feeling every bit as old as its half century age. It’s privileged British twenty-somethings, inspired by and in love with the music of the American south, bragging about treating a woman poorly, oblivious to how American society mistreated their musical heroes. Copeland flips everything around, including the pronouns, so that the song is about a woman of color overcoming oppression, turning the tables in a way that, today, feels much more appropriate. Musically, her version is slower than the Stones, with a breath that lets the listener hone in on the suddenly accusatory lyrics. It’s as thought-provoking a moment as you’re likely to hear this year.
Which isn’t to say Copeland has strayed too far from the blues. “Clotilda’s On Fire” features country-rocking singer-songwriter Jason Isbell doing a shockingly credible Albert King guitar impression. “Apple Pie and a .45” has an alt-country energy reminiscent of Drive-By Truckers, Isbell’s old band, even though Isbell doesn’t play on that track. Wunderkind blues guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram contributes some stinging leads to “Money Makes You Ugly,” a dramatic, straight-ahead rock tune. But Copeland also touches on gospel, with “Walk Until I Ride,” and straight-up Americana on the title track, with Jerry Douglas providing guest dobro.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Will Kimbrough plays guitar on the album, in addition to producing, and while it’s a great sounding album, it works because of Copeland’s understanding of all of the different genres she’s working within. While I can’t speak to how difficult it is for her to drop in and out of the various styles showcased on the album, it sounds effortless. You don’t hear an artist clumsily shifting gears from country song into rock song, and then into blues song. Instead, you hear someone who understands what’s at the root of every track, even though she didn’t write any of them, and connects to the song’s essence. Copeland isn’t bigger than the blues but it also doesn’t define her.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Under My Thumb
– Apple Pie and a .45
– Money Makes You Ugly
– Clotilda’s On Fire
The Big Hit
– Clotilda’s On Fire
Review by Steven Ovadia