Stronger Than You Think
By Al Kaufman
“Mature” is a tricky world in the music business. It’s often code for “losing your edge,” or “quietly slipping off into adult contemporary oblivion.” Michelle Malone’s last two albums, 2012’s Day 2, and 2014’s Acoustic Winter could both be considered “mature” albums in the sense that Malone confronted some demons and emotions and handled them head on, and did so in a quieter, more contemplative manner than one is used to from Atlanta’s queen of the blues guitar. While people still stomped a boot or two during her live shows, there was reason to fear that Malone was beginning to go softly into that good night.
Stronger Than You Think not only lays any of those notions to rest, it buries them six feet under ground and dances on them. Nothing, including the album title, is subtle about this release. This is Malone flexing her muscles, both musically and spiritually. For people who don’t want to be messed with, here is your soundtrack.
The album opens with the bluesy harmonica wail that begins “Stomping Ground,” a song that pays homage to the happy days of skinny dipping, spin the bottle, and your first toke, while remembering that those days cannot be revisited. It doesn’t do so longingly, however, but more of a “that was fun, now move on” mentality that is driven along by drummer (and album co-producer with Malone) Gerry Hansen.
That leads into the braggadocios shuffle “Vivian Vegas,” a girl “kicked out of three high schools trying to earn my rock and roll degree.” She boasts, “I’ve always been in trouble and trouble’s always been in me.”
But Malone really spits venom on “My Favorite Tshirt.” Like the Ben Folds Five song, “Song for the Dumped,” it’s about someone getting their shirt back after a break-up. But in this case, the woman is getting out of an abusive relationship. After spouting off reasons why she stayed (“Mama didn’t raise no quitter.”) she declares, “I’m never gonna let you hurt me again.” “Empowering” is an annoying word, but there is not a better one to explain the effect this song could have on women listening to it. Malone, who has worked with Wellspring (a group that helps abused and exploited women and children) fully understands the whirlwind of emotions that an abused woman goes through, and lays them out with the raw anger they deserve. Very few songs about abuse make the listener want to raise her fist in the air and scream along. “My Favorite Tshirt” does it with ease.
Other strong women abound. “Ramona” is a woman who got laid off (but calls herself “semi-retired”) taking care of her mother in the beginning stages of dementia. Again, it’s not maudlin, it’s just two strong women working it out. The woman in “When I Grow Up” (co-written with Kristian Bush, who sings backup on the track) drinks too much and is going nowhere, but she firmly believes that she will soon be “loving my life, living my dreams.” In “Fish Up a Tree,” the lead character celebrates the fact that she is different than everyone else. “Keep My Head Up,” which provides the album with its title, is a great bluesy rocker in the vein of Bonnie Raitt that needs no further explanation as to its message. Again, subtlety is not Malone strong point here.
“I Don’t Wanna Know” and “Ashes” are Stones-like blues rockers that are better than anything Jagger and Richards have done in 30 years. And there’s even a pretty torch song, “I Got an Angel,” which shows that Malone still has that tender side, and a voice sweeter than muscadine wine.
The CD closes with “Birthday Song (I’m So Glad).” With its sing-along refrain of “I’m so glad that you were born,” and lyrics that only bother to occasionally rhyme, it’s Malone stripping away that tough veneer that is on display throughout the CD and giving thanks for an important person in her life. While the rest of the CD makes it clear that Michelle Malone is not someone you want to mess with, this song shows that if she’s on your side, you could not ask for a better friend.