Multiple BMA nominee and daughter of iconic soul man Rufus Thomas, Vaneese Thomas, delivers her eighth album, another terrific soul work, Down Yonder. Thomas splits her time between her hometown of Memphis and Broadway, as she’s lived in the New York area for some time now. Thomas is either the sole writer or co-writer on all dozen tunes. This, like her more recent albums was co-produced by her partner, Wayne Warnecke and features top shelf NYC musicians from “Saturday Night Live “ drummer Shawn Pelton and former “David Letterman Show” bassist Will Lee. Guitarist Al Orlo and keyboardist Robbie Kondor round out the New York contingent. Yet, it wouldn’t be a Thomas album without some Memphis representation. Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell’s Royal Studios hosted a few tracks too. Reverend Charles Hodges distinctive B3 is present as are the horns of Bo-Keys trumpeter Marc Franklin and baritone saxman Kirk Smothers. Vaneese’s big sister Carla Thomas sings on several tracks and Kevin Bacon joined her for a duet.
The opening swamp track “Ebony Man” was co-written with Lisa Fischer of Stones fame and Carolyn Mitchell. Tash Neal’s dobro adds poignancy to the sharecropper’s tale. The horns appear in “I Tried” as Thomas wails are chill inducing as she takes the role of a troubled woman. This, more than any track, gives the listener the breadth of depth of Thomas’ vocal talent. “Highway of Regret” is deceptively smoother with the loping groove disguising the introspective lyrics, highlighted by guest violinist Katie Jacoby.
The horn-drenched “Make Me” has Thomas as the scorned woman, grinding defiantly. The recognizable organ of Reverend Charles Hodges forms the bed for a church-like tune about redemption and hope in “Second Chance” with Carla and Berneta Miles singing backgrounds. Thomas delivers deep blues with “mama He Loves Me,” as she seeks advice with the flugelhorn and arrangement coming from Tim Duimette. She reveals an angry power in the funky “Lies” and then simmers and smolders on the ballad “Handle Me Gently,” another clear standout track.
“Legacy of Pain’ features Kevin Bacon singing about murders that took place in Mississippi and remain unprosecuted. They both bring the requisite emotion and power to this one, highlighted by Orlo’s burning guitar solo. “Last Kiss:” slow burning soul that accents Thomas’s command of high register range before she takes us to church again with the foot-stomping “Gone.” She sticks with the gospel in the closing title track, about a vagabond drawn to the power of her home, something Thomas frequently experiences.
Vaneese Thomas has little, if anything to prove, but this album once again shows why she is so well respected and consistently honored. Maybe this will move her from the nomination to winner. She more than deserves it.
- Jim Hynes