The Ann Wilson Thing – Focus #2 (EP)
Two live covers and two studio originals compromise the latest release from legendary Heart front woman Ann Wilson. As anyone who’s followed her career casually knows, the Wilson sisters have tremendous love for high quality songwriting and the retro guitars and compelling riffs of classic rock. Their own contributions to the genre are considerable enough to merit their inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they have been proud throughout their careers to pay tribute to the artists who inspired their own journey. The album’s second cover, a stunning take on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, highlights Wilson’s good taste and her admirable desire to use the forum of her own career to spotlight the achievements of others. She’s gathered a strong supporting cast around her to help realize these artistic goals and the result is a four song gem that neatly encapsulates Wilson’s strengths without even a hint of self-indulgence.
There’s no self indulgence to be found on the EP’s opening track. The Ann Wilson Thing tackles Jimi Hendrix’s classic rocker “Manic Depression” with a rambunctious spirit and loose, playful confidence. It builds an aggressive head of steam that sounds like it risks coming apart at times, but the suggestion of outright chaos is the mark of a band able to bring listeners thrillingly to the brink without ever allowing them to drop off a cliff. Wilson sharply changes direction on the softer, acoustic centered folkie number “Fighten fer Life”, but the melodic virtues remain strong and Wilson communicates the song’s narrative with elegant simplicity and plaintive emotion. Like the other original composition on the new EP, the songwriting on “Fighten fer Life” reflects Wilson’s understanding of traditional music and her natural ability to marry an uniquely modern voice to seemingly ill-fitting material.
The emotional and musical high point of the EP comes with her Gabriel cover. The musical excellence of the performance is connected to the sparse, exceedingly tasteful accompaniment they provide Wilson. It frames her voice and phrasing alike in the best possible way, stressing the song’s dramatic aspects, and allowing her to move comfortably between the song’s alternating viewpoints. The vocal is extraordinarily lived in, yet intensely musical. It is hard to believe that years of touring haven’t wreaked unconsciousable damage on Wilson’s instrument, but much like Van Morrison, old age has seemed to deepen her power and emotive potential. This isn’t any clearer than on the EP’s finale. “Anguish” is ripped straight from the pages of classic blues and its heavy footed, emotionally wrung out guitars are well-keyed to Wilson’s equally fraught voice.
Focus #2 comes out of the gate swinging and more than justifies its existence before the first song concludes. One should hesitate labeling such a relatively diminutive work as major, but this EP seems to reassert Wilson’s place as one of the foremost popular singers working in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. The four songs on this release are perfect stages for a singer of monumental feeling and skill.
9 out of 10 stars.