Listen up: These women know how to rock

Stewart Oksenhorn
Singer-guitarist Ruthie Foster has released "The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster." She performs in September at Snowmass Village's Oktoberfest. (Contributed photo)

With no conscious effort on my part, women have been dominating my CD player lately. More often than not, I reach for something new and promising, and the singer has a name like Ruthie, Keren, Charlotte or Alison. Or Björk, or Feist. When I want something old and familiar, the names are Emmylou, Joni and Laura. Maybe it’s a short-lived moment, and no disrespect to the Ryans, Jeffs and Martins of the world, but women singers seem to have a wider latitude of expression.Girls rock. And swing, and pick.

produced by Hal Wilner and Williams (Lost Highway)”West” reveals the evolution of country-rocker Lucinda Williams from an agonizing, bruised lover to a bruised lover moving toward conciliation and resolution. The album is still filled with the failed romances, but the tone has shifted dramatically. In “Learning How to Live,” which moves along at a loping, smooth beat, Williams is actually taking the remains of her last boyfriend, and instead of burning them to ashes, she’s using them: “I’ll take the best of what you had to give.” “Unsuffer Me” looks ahead to when the pain is gone. The album ends with the title track, with the American West as a symbol of a gleaming, new horizon.But the old Lu can still be summoned when necessary. As on “Come On,” when a ferocious Williams snarls about an inadequate ex: “You didn’t even make me, come on!”Lucinda Williams performs Thursday, July 12 at Belly Up.

produced by Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne (Blue Corn Music)Hanging a tag like “phenomenal” on a dead artist, or one who will be soon, is one thing; giving it to a relatively little-known 30-something is another. The Texas-born Ruthie Foster doesn’t seem the boastful sort. She’s a soul singer, connected more to the spirit of music than to self-promotion. What is phenomenal about Foster is her apparent belief in the power of music to uplift. The rousing “Heal Yourself” and a smoky cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” celebrate what music is for.Foster herself gets most phenomenal on a soaring cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor.”Ruthie Foster performs Sept. 9 at Snowmass Village’s Oktoberfest.

“Noir,” produced by Cohen and Oded Lev-Ari”Poetica,” produced by Cohen and Omer Avital (Anzic Records)The odds of an Israeli-born saxophonist invigorating the jazz orchestra: slim. The odds that that person would be a woman: really slim, given how male-dominated the big-band genre has been.The liner notes to “Noir” feature photos of the 18 members of the Anzic Orchestra appearing on the album: one is a woman, trombonist Deborah Weisz. Opposite those 18 is a photo of Anat Cohen, a (female) reeds player, bandleader and visionary. On the CD is one of the most refreshing takes to be heard on the orchestral jazz. Running through “Noir” is a Brazilian and Afro-Cuban thread, but Cohen (whose brother, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, appears here) doesn’t limit her ideas to the Latin beat. The album runs through Dixieland, old-school swing and ballads, all given up-to-date twists.As if that were not enough, Cohen delivers a second new album, “Poetica,” a small-ensemble CD that includes tunes from Israel, France, Brazil and Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament.” With Cohen on clarinet. And a string quartet on four tracks. And just as impressive as “Noir.”

produced by Mitchell Froom and the Ditty Bops (Warner Bros.)The Ditty Bops know how to get your attention: A hot lesbian couple – Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett – who biked across the country to save on gas and reduce their carbon footprint. On my wall hangs a calendar that has the two provocatively dolled up as punks, scarecrows, skeletons and Renaissance nudes.If all that doesn’t do it, the music should. On their second album, the Bops combine a singer-songwriter mentality with the swing of the Andrews sisters, and dress it up in a music theater sensibility.The Ditty Bops play Aug. 16 in the Snowmass Village Free Summer Concert Series.

produced by Smith, Lenny Kaye, Tony Shanahan & Jay Dee Daugherty (Columbia)An album of covers by the iconoclastic Patti Smith – that’s got to be an eye-opening thing, right? Probably turn you on to some songs and writers you’d never heard before?Bad news: Smith apparently listens to the same stuff as 80 million other baby boomers. It’s like a tour through classic rock history: “Gimme Shelter,” “Helpless,” “White Rabbit,” “Midnight Rider” and so on. Granted, she makes it all sound good, but I was looking for revelation. At least she goes for a mostly unsung Dylan nugget, “Changing of the Guard.” Otherwise, welcome to the middle of the mainstream, Patti.

Now Joni Mitchell knows how to get out to the fringes. Actually, there’s no indication that Mitchell had anything to do with this tribute CD. But the album sings with her free, loose spirit anyway. The singers lined up to do her songs are, appropriate to the muse here, a mix of jazz and rock and, better still, unique artists who defy categorization. Sufjan Stevens delivers a horn-filled “Free Man in Paris”; Sarah McLachlan gives a moody reading to “Blue”; Björk gives her soundscape treatment to “The Boho Dance” – and nobody (not even Counting Crows) does the overdone “Big Yellow Taxi.” Also on board are jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, rocker-of-all-trades Elvis Costello, Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson.

produced by Tony Visconti (Razor & Tie)Singer Angélique Kidjo left her native Benin decades ago, to live in Paris and New York, and explore universes of music from South America to the Caribbean. On “Djin Djin,” she brings it all back home, celebrating the music of her native West Africa. She brings along the friends she has picked up on the way: Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Ziggy Marley, Carlos Santana. But probably the most important component – aside from Kidjo herself, who conveys strength and compassion in any language – is the duo of African percussionists, who deliver the pulse of African sound.

produced by Ry Cooder (Anti-)Last year, Bruce Springsteen took the socially conscious songs of Pete Seeger and made a party of them. The Boss’ “We Shall Overcome” used horns and strings and voices to make a celebratory hootenanny of songs like “Pay Me My Money Down,” “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep” and the title track.Mavis Staples, a different sort of American icon, shows a different way to treat such material on “We’ll Never Turn Back.” Duplicating some of the tunes from “We Shall Overcome” (“Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Not Be Moved”), the 67-year-old Staples gives a tougher, bluesier, holier feel to the songs.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


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