Susan Marshall is arguably the contemporary Memphis scene's most powerful and versatile pure singer, and, with this third solo offering, she delivers her strongest album yet. Little Red is a mix of covers (four) and originals (five), all united by Marshall's consistently electric vocals, which grab you whether going for calm or thunder and all points in between.
There are some notable guest stars here, but they aren't bait. Each provides a useful sonic counterpart for Marshall. On a cover of "Femme Fatale" that seems to draw equally from the Velvet Underground original and the Big Star interpretation recorded in the same Ardent studio Marshall is singing from, former Afghan Whig Greg Dulli whispers the title refrain at the center, around which Marshall spins silk. (Marshall also opens with a bluesy torch-song cover of the Whigs' "Going to Town.")
Another cover/guest-star combo is Marshall's take on the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," which turns out to be the perfect Fab Four song for someone like Marshall to cover, because it's a great skeleton for a singer to flesh out. You can pay attention to the performance rather than the composition. And in this case, it's Marshall trading vocal riffs with Lucinda Williams, whose refrains are more familiar but less dynamic.
And the great Teenie Hodges laces a gritty Hi-style guitar riff into the Marshall original "Oh My Soul," which gets increasingly bluesy and hypnotic, like classic Hi meets hill-country blues. Marshall worries her way around it beautifully.
Many of Marshall's originals are carnal slow-burns ("Little Red," "Already Gone"), but the best of the bunch is the lighter, more rhythmic album-closer, "Back to You." You'd be forgiven for assuming Hodges is playing on this one too, but that's Dave Cousar on electric guitar and Harry Peel doing his best Al Jackson Jr. on drums. With Jim Spake and Scott Thompson providing horn punctuation, this is the best modern-day Hi Rhythm homage/approximation not heard on the last Al Green records. The likes of Green and Ann Peebles find a worthy inheritor here in Marshall. — Chris Herrington
Susan Marshall performs two record-release shows for Little Red this week. On Friday, April 24th, she plays the Warehouse (36 East G.E. Patterson, in the South Main Arts District). Showtime is 9 p.m.; admission is $5.
On Sunday, April 26th, Marshall plays Itta Bena, above B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street. Free admission for the 5-7 p.m. cocktail hour. Reservations required for dinner. Marshall performs at 7:30 p.m. Call 578-3031 for more information.