Album: Hard To Love

Artist: Joyann Parker

Label: Hopeless Romantics Records

Release Date: April 13, 2018

The Upshot: Rarely does a female singer stop you in your tracks, let alone a relative novice releasing her sophomore album. However, this all-original outing by this passionately-robust Minneapolis native is about to change your life.


When’s the last time a female vocalist did that little something extra to you? You know what I mean…..Bonnie Bramlett, Lydia Pense, Maggie Bell. Beyond solid pipes, they bring an all-out energy to every composition while adding enough testosterone-twisting firepower to transform your blood from a simmer to a boil in seconds flat. Behold, Minneapolis’ Joyann Parker – and a new favorite female singer. If it’s still safe to utter words like ‘sultry’ and ‘sensual’ these days, both apply. So does ‘torrid’ if not ‘red-hot. Parker’s soulful voice starts somewhere low – down near the blues – and builds, slowly, picking up additional passion as it travels through her entire body. Her expert band tiptoes around her applying a less is more principle, keeping her firmly in the spotlight (yet you can’t help but wish they’d step out into the spotlight a little more often – they clearly have the skills, if not the confidence). With roots in the church and time spent as a wedding singer, the young, classically-trained pianist literally stumbled into the blues – earning an invitation to join a fledgling blues band after entering a singing contest with her version of Aretha’s “Chain of Fools”.

But that was in 2014 and, four years later, Parker’s fallen head and heels over the blues, co-writing all 13 of Hard To Love’s songs with guitarist (if not secret weapon) Mark Lamoine. The powerful lead-off track, “Memphis”, is a best-foot forward as Parker takes the microphone and throws her all into the music with a voice that’s as powerful as it is fiery – a delicate balance few singers can muster at once. The pulse on “Memphis’ seems to grow in intensity, thanks to bassist Mike Carvale and drummer Alec Tackmann, as guitarist Lamoine injects tasteful elements of electric guitar just behind the singer’s strong, takin’-care-of-business lead – never getting in her way, yet providing a brief, much-needed solo. Pianist Tim Wick is present but barely accounted for. Parker owns her material as she launches into “Envy” – enhancing the soulfulness like a take-charge Carla Thomas, clearly hurt by a soured relationship as Lamoine backs up her attitude with tough chords and some promising leads, Wick dousing Parker’s caustic flame with liquid B3. The slowed down “Home” demonstrates the singer’s low-end range as Wick’s piano and B3 and Lamoine’s spare guitar provide her with a sturdy framework.

None of this would prepare me for the jaw-dropping “Dizzy” – a Stax-sturdy workout underlining Parker’s intense attitude and firm grasp of the material, her heart fully committed to every word as she lets her backbone slip a little, filling the room with song. This is one of the best tracks on the album – but there are plenty more. Lest you relax your expectations, “Jigsaw Heart” presents a softer, gentler Parker pitted against a backdrop of Wick’s rich, church-like organ as Lamoine steps out a little, sending up some added energy through a wah-wah pedal. Parker sings of the “fire inside her” – as it combines with more oxygen over the course of this 5-minute, slow build barn-burner. Moving uptown, horns (Parker and guest, Gunhild Carling) inject the perky “Who What When Where Why“ with funk firepower that makes the most of Carvale’s stand-out bass work, Wick’s piano and supportive backup singers. Parker’s vocal control is mesmerizing, from a whisper to a full-out wail, maintaining her presence in every setting – sitting back for no one, yet championing each and every arrangement. Her lungs should be studied by science. Her timing, impeccable. A darker “Bluer Than You” brings Wick’s piano to the fore, as Parker paints a portrait of a selfish lover, reinforced by horns and Lamoine’s strong chording. The band reveals their inner New Orleans with the honky-tonkin’ swing of “Ray” – featuring Wick’s understated 88s and Tackmann’s upbeat drum attack. Even Lamoine gets into the shift in energy with an economical solo as Parker proves her ability with each and every genre. The way she tackles the name “Ray” at the 2:45 mark is truly mind-altering. The slower “Evil Hearted” frees up some space for Parker to add sizzle to every sweltering lyric, ably backed by both Wick on stellar B3 and Lomaine on muted electric guitar as she reveals a slightly more shaded side, with a slinky assist by Carvale on bass. “Take My Heart And Run” picks up some speed to give Lomaine some rope on slide guitar against a shuffling drum beat as Parker turns in yet another solid delivery while the piano and bass-driven “Your Mama” falls into finger-snapping jazz turf, putty in her hands. The rock ’n’ roll edge of “What Happened To Me” emphasizes Wick’s steady stride on piano against a solid beat, yet it proves the oddball in the mix. Set closer “Hard To Love” falls into the ballad category, again demonstrating that Parker can turn anything put in front of her to her advantage – yet this supper club track, driven by piano and bass, only serves to underline that Parker’s key calling is gospel-fired, soul-blues – freeing her up to fill a room with ferocious intensity and bring it to a controlled burn, augmented by musicians who understand their role in achieving the best possible mix.

Clearly a surprisingly sophisticated songwriter in the bargain, the guitar/piano/horn-playing Parker is set to make a permanent mark in the category of her choosing. With your first taste of her phenomenal voice – and throughout this solid release – you’ll be extremely hard-pressed to find anything about her that’s Hard To Love.


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