Superb vocalists have little trouble crossing genres. Gina Sicilia established her career as blues singer, flirted with Americana having moved to Nashville, and is now trying her hand at gospel as she returns to where she started, on the VizzTone label. This is anything but a casual experiment however, as Sicilia teams closely with the great guitarist/songwriter/producer Colin Linden. That’s a pattern that Sicilia has been able to follow, earning the respect of such skilled producers as Dave Gross, Dave Darling, Glenn Barrat, and Cody Dickinson, all who preceded this collaboration with Linden on Unchange. While gospel usually conjures traditional material, this effort consists of only four traditional renditions, with six of the ten penned by Linden or Sicilia.
The core backing band is a tight trio of Linden (guitars, vocals), and his frequent collaborators, bassist Johnny Dymond and drummer Bryan Owings. Ann and Regina McCrary back on “Healing Time” and “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor” while Linden’s multi-talented wife, Janice Powers, co-writer on three tunes, is on organ and keyboards for “Let’s Set the World on Fire” and “One Last Tender Moment” along with the prolific Kevin McKendree who joins her on piano for the latter and plays organ on “Healing Time.” This spare backing gives more than ample space for Sicilia’s nuanced and sustained phrasing as well as for Linden’s superior guitar skills, the latter best exemplified in his tremolo heavy and burning accompaniment on the standout Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” a tune covered by countless artists from The Grateful Dead to Hot Tuna, none with a more passionate take than this one.
Although, the two shine equally as bright on the original material and it is remarkable how well the originals blend in so well with the familiar material. The opener “Healing Time” sets the tone with Sicilia singing alone to the gentle beats of Owings, building to a spiritual hymn as the McCrarys join and the guitars and keys fill in the spaces that were void at the outset. Linden penned the tune with his guitar buddies Colin James and Jim Weider but follows with the title track, one of three written with Powers, practically an a cappella take by Sicilia excepting the mid song guitar break. Shirley Ceasar’s “How Far Am I From Canaan” has a healthy balance of power and solemnity, morphing to an up-tempo traditional gospel cadence as they take it out.
“Let’s Set the World on Fire” bears no resemblance to the Hank Williams tune of a similar name but is another of the Linden/Powers tunes, a mix of joy and heartache with a terrific guitar spot. They slow down the traditional “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor,” another buoyed by the subtle backgrounds of the McCrarys. “Valentine,” from Linden and Tom Hambridge, may be the least gospel of the bunch but it fits in sonically with the others and Sicilia’s voice alone is captivating no matter the song. The sequencing calls for a rouser at this point, and Linden’s guitar intro signals such for the Linden/Powers “Don’t Be Afraid to Be Wrong,” a blending of gospel and blues, perfectly suited for his guitar lines. Sicilia’s lone original “One Last Tender Moment” sounds as authentic as any gospel hymn, with the piano and organ bringing the church-like feel. Going out on a high note, Sicilia absolutely wails on “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” as Linden follows with a poignant slide solo.
This album is carefully crafted, leaving no excess. It would benefit from more up-tempo tunes but it more than compensates by positioning the two principals to such profound effect. The minimal adornment allows the sheer power and expressiveness of Sicilia’s vocals to completely grab hold. She has never sounded better.
- Jim Hynes