Tracy Nelson's new full-length collection of rhythm-and-blues songs peaks with her perfectly judged cover of Percy Mayfield's "Stranger in My Own Home Town" — and that's appropriate for a record titled Victim of the Blues. Mayfield's tune is all about how success can turn quickly to failure, and you can't remember the person you were before you left home. In Nelson's interpretation, "Stranger" becomes a cry of defiance for a singer who has made Tennessee her home for many years, but who grew up loving R&B as the form moved out into the world — or at least to Nelson's hometown of Madison, Wis. Victim is a worldly, loving glance back at a time when blues, soul and gospel routinely intersected.
Victim of the Blues emerges from a difficult time: A fire destroyed the home of Nelson and her longtime partner, Mike Dysinger, in June 2010, almost taking the completed Victim recordings with it. In a triumph over the blues that informs the record, Nelson's recordings were salvaged. We're fortunate: Victim displays not only Nelson's refined vocal technique, but also a kind of sophisticated taste that effortlessly connects Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf to Mayfield and Joe Tex.
Along with a crack band that includes guitarist Mike Henderson and keyboardist Jimmy Pugh, Nelson turns her grocery bag of songs into a remembrance of a sensibility that has almost vanished. Her version of Mayfield's "Stranger" moves smartly, with Mayfield's melancholy replaced by something more detached. "I ain't welcome here no more," Nelson sings, but she sounds unbowed by the cool reception.
Elsewhere, Nelson does justice to Willie Dixon's "You'll Be Mine," a song usually associated with Howlin' Wolf. With skittering piano and a basic guitar solo, it shows off Nelson's fine-tuned vibrato to beautiful effect. Throughout Victim of the Blues, Nelson sounds a bit like jazz singer Lee Wiley: There's a slightly acrid flavor to her lower register, and a pleading edge to her higher notes. In fact, she sounds so comfortable in these funky old songs that you could be forgiven for thinking that sometimes victims must have more fun.
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I think all we punkers had to go to bed early.