The last couple of months have seen some fine blues and roots releases, but people, the bar has been raised, and Lisa Mills is the one responsible. I’m Changing is one of the best and most pure recordings in recent years. Mills is a singer with a stylistic range that careens from bluesy to jazzy, floats across the spectrum between folk-ish and country-tinged, while deeply centered in singer-songwriter territory, breathy one minute and belting the next, sad and sultry, soaring and sexy, vulnerable and volatile all at the same time. And deeply Southern through and through.
Not just another girl with a guitar, this is music made by a woman who knows her strengths and weaknesses, and can sing about them with more authority than a truckload of doe-eyed waifs emoting about first lovers.
Revisiting early material is not a novel idea, but it is a risky one. It takes wisdom and good judgment, a keen ear and a willing heart, to know both your material and yourself well enough to see what needs to be tweaked, what needs to be scrapped, and what needs to be left alone. It takes a jeweler’s touch to know how to take a raw diamond and shape it into a stunner. Mills, along with co-producer Ian Jennings and mix-master Trina Shoemaker, carefully reshape I’m Changing from its original form as it was birthed in 2005, to its current state, fully fleshed out and recast in 2014. But make no mistake; you don’t make a Marquise-cut diamond out of a piece of gravel. In the case of Lisa Mills and I’m Changing, the diamond was there all the time.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue — a phrase that aptly defines this new/old release. Coming a little over a week before Halloween, the scary thing here is that it becomes evident that Lisa Mills can sing whatever she darn well pleases, and in a way that makes it seem effortless. That old reliable phrase about singing the phonebook applies. Add to that the fact that ten of the twelve tracks are originals and you have just a hint of the talent the formidable Ms. Mills possesses. The strength of the material is impressive indeed.
Like the jeweler, Lisa Mills knows how to display the facets of her voice and songwriting in such a way that no matter what angle you choose to take, the result is pleasing to the beholder. Balance, oft a tricky thing to find, is in abundance here. Too much angst and the artist is cast as a navel-gazer. Too much emotion and she is pigeon-holed as a “chick singer.” Too overtly sexual and she risks not being taken seriously at all. What emerges here is a portrait of a real woman, not some tarted-up caricature foisted on the public by some idiot label exec looking for a new cash cow. No twerkers allowed here.
The album kicks off with “Better Than This/ I Don’t Need You Anymore,” a bluesy ballad in which the singer declares she is ready to move on. Next up is “I Don’t Want to be Happy,” in which Mills reveals, “I kneel at the altar in the church of the painful truth/ I don’t want to be happy/ I just want to be with you.” Mill’s voice aches and breaks in just the right places, sounding strong one moment, right before exposing the weakness behind the bravado. The title track, I’m Changing paints a portrait of anger and selfishness eroding a relationship. The singer observes, “I’m changing/You’re still the same,” before reluctantly confessing at the close that she is not yet ready to give up on the love affair. It is that complexity that gives these songs depth and familiarity in the same instant.
The two covers on this record, Rev. Robert Wilkins “I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down,” and “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, are stellar, and serve to remind the listener that not only is Lisa Mills a great songwriter, but she is also a first-class interpreter. If there was any justice in the world she would be opening for Bonnie Raitt. She’s that good.
Things get playful on “Take My Troubles,” with the singer imploring “Give a little of your love, a little while,” before breaking into some joyful scatting. “The Truth” brings us back down to earth, with a more assertive singer insisting her lover embrace honesty, “For once in your life.”
This album should be on everyone’s essential list, whether you are a fan of country, blues, folk, or singer-songwriter. In fact, the only question I have about this record is, why haven’t you ordered it by now? You deserve to hear one of this year’s best releases.