Natalia M. King  
Woman Mind of My Own

4.5/5 reels

The secret-ish joke of John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" is its stark message and criticism of the American dream, or lack thereof, hidden behind a relentlessly happy beat and a chorus that repeatedly uses the word America. Hearing the song blasting out across countless radios, most people wonder how the song could be critical if it's all about the good old U.S. of A. The joy of Natalia M. King's cover, sung with singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, is that she takes away the original's deliberately deceptive varnish, leaving nothing but an accusation. And still a great song.

King, Brooklyn raised but now living in Paris, covers Mellencamp on Woman Mind of My Own, a collection of blues, soul, and rhythm and blues tunes showcasing her voice, which has the desperation of classic blues singers, but a sweeter vocal packaging that makes it hit the ear a little bit differently, less like listening to a cry for help and more like someone comforting you. King's vocals dig deeply.

For instance, the title track is King accompanied by Fabien Squillante's slide guitar. It sounds like a classic Delta tune, perhaps something Robert Johnson might have written and performed. But King sings from a female perspective, in the country blues style, making for a captivating amalgamation: "They call me a hard headed woman / I  tell  them I work at it everyday." The track is simple yet complete.

But King explores other genres. "Forget Yourself" is soulful, her soaring voice standing up to arrangement that includes horns and organ. It's sophisticated but also joyful. And her voice is huge, taking up so much of the track, not through volume or shrillness, but with an inner power, like she's always existed within the song, and always will. She also reinvents "One More Try," a George Michael tune, as folk. Her voice subtly changes between styles, always recognizable, but generously bending to the essential contours of the individual song.

King ends the album with "Play On," a plodding drum march with hypnotic slide, accordion whining beneath the track, the whole tune trippy, and hard to define stylistically. Her vocals are intense and focused, but also somehow airy, like a fog made out of lead. It's a haunting track that pushes the blues into a different direction, the chaos of Led Zeppelin, the acoustic blues of Lead Belly, but with a feminine energy that also leans on folk and soul.

The album's publicity strategy leverages the Mellencamp cover, which Mellencamp himself seems to enjoy. It's a good song made better, and given depth, in King's hands. But the entire album, originals and covers, explores blues sounds faithfully, but also progressively. King has an amazing voice and could do an entire album of Delta blues, and it would be a masterpiece. But the variety of styles covered on Woman Mind of My Own makes for an album that's of the blues, but also beyond it.