This CD review was originally published in the November 8, 2012 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com
Bonnie Bishop – Free
Self released through Be Squared Records
7 tracks / 28:26
If you Google Bonnie Bishop you will find out that she is a country rock singer and songwriter out of Nashville, so you will be in for quite a surprise when you listen to her new CD, Free. This is not country music, but it certainly does rock in a soulful and bluesy way.
Bonnie earned her stripes in the Texas club scene and cut four albums before heading to Nashville to make a run at being a songwriter. She has developed into quite a good songwriter, and recently had one of her songs recorded by Bonnie Raitt (one of her inspirations, by the way). Her latest CD Free is really more of an EP, with seven tracks and a total play time of less than thirty minutes, but they are all original tunes and she had a hand in writing all of them. She is joined on this recording by Jimmy Wallace on keys, Steve Mackey on bass, Fred Eltringham on drums. The electric and acoustic guitars were played by Rob McNelley and Sam Hawksley. This tight group of musicians illustrates why so many artists choose to record in Nashville, where the talent pool is so very deep.
“Keep Using Me” is the first track, and we get a strong dose of Jimmy Wallace on honky-tonk piano and B3 and some tasteful bass work from Mackey on the bass, but the real star is Bishop’s voice. I have seen other writers compare her to Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, and though I do not think she sounds like them I do think that she has the same energy and presence as these iconic singers. I do not know exactly how to categorize this song, but the backing vocals and the story of a woman done wrong tip it over into the realm of soul for me.
Next up is another song that is hard to fit into any one genre, “Shrinking Violet.” This one is equal parts funk and country rock. The distorted slide guitars on this one are brilliant, and Eltringham really keeps this one moving with his driving drums. There is continuity of the lyrics that carries over from the first song to this one, and you will find that Bonnie Bishop is not afraid to approach personal subjects and that she has quite a lyrical way of stringing words together.
The title track is a beautifully arranged ballad that slowly builds with piano, strings and a background choir. As “Free” starts out, we get to hear Bonnie’s voice with a lot of the background stripped way, and it is breathtakingly emotional. If a household-name artist had recorded this song, you would hear it every 10 minutes on pop radio, and tomorrow’s stars would be covering it on some reality television talent show. That is how good it is.
Halfway through Free the mood lightens up for “Bad Seed,” the only real country tune on the CD. This one uses the country music time-honored tradition of telling a story as a song, interspersed with a nifty chorus here and there. This is a super catchy tune, and with Bishop’s rip-roaring vocals it should also be very radio-friendly.
“World Like This” is a hopeful ballad that gets a dose of Hammond and choir to make this a fresh gospel tune. By slowing things down the listener a chance to hear the message of the lyrics, and to consider the context of love in today’s society. “The Best Songs Come from Broken Hearts” builds on this, starting slowly and gaining momentum with her voice sounds time-worn that adds an extra shot of honesty to this song. Free finishes up on an inspirational note with “Right Where You Are,” which is a lively tone with hammering drums and a rocking bass line. This song is soul, gospel and rock, and with the way it was recorded it almost comes off as a live track.
If she was looking for work as a songwriter, Free is the best resume that Bonnie Bishop could submit. The lyrics are personal and poignant, and the music is rich and catchy; it does not hurt that she has a great voice, a terrific band and good studio production. I am glad that she produced a shorter release with consistently good content rather than adding obligatory cover tunes or songs that were not ready for prime time. Free is a winner and you should give it a listen.