Irma Thomas

My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn (Rounder Records)

Vocalist Irma Thomas, who's been making fine recordings since the early 1960s, has more than earned the title of soul queen of New Orleans. So what's she doing releasing a CD called My Heart's in Memphis? For the answer, look no further than the subtitle of Thomas' new recording: "The Songs of Dan Penn."

Penn, one of the finest songwriters in popular music, has written hits like "Cry Like a Baby" for the Boxtops, "Dark End of the Street" for James Carr and "Do Right Woman" for Aretha Franklin. Although he grew up in Alabama, Penn ended up in Memphis in the mid-1960s. There he became an in-demand songwriter at labels like Stax and Bell and at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama that cranked out many of the Atlantic label's R&B hits of that era.

Penn and Thomas first began to collaborate musically on her 1997 release The Story of My Life when Penn visited the recording sessions and stuck around to write three new songs for the release. On My Heart's in Memphis, Penn again focuses on new tunes -- 10 of the 13 cuts were written specifically for this recording.

Fans of Penn's classic tunes may wish for more updates such as Thomas' takes on "I'm Your Puppet" and "Zero Willpower," but his new material proves he's still a master craftsman of the Southern soul ballad. And longtime Thomas devotees may wish for a little more of the raw Big Easy edge usually found on her recordings. Instead, My Heart's in Memphis features a laid-back, understated instrumental sound reminiscent of the '70s-era Memphis recordings made by Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell.

But the smooth, silky charts seem to bring out a new dimension in Thomas' vocals. Thomas doesn't have to shout to make herself heard over a raucous horn section; the arrangements of these tunes are built to showcase her vocals. And on songs like "Blue in the Heart," "Life at the End of the Road" and the title cut, Thomas proves she has the vocal chops to challenge any pop diva -- and more soul than any of 'em.

My Heart's in Memphis is definitely not a New Orleans party album that'll get your backside in motion like Thomas' classic Live: Simply the Best. Rather, Memphis is understated, filled with classic Southern soul ballads that sound as if they were aged like fine sippin' whiskey.

 
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