But on her latest album, "Stronger For It," Magness proves that she can take on all of them -- and more.
On one of the album's stand-out cuts, "Whoop and Holler," written by Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard, she ups the ante on the original rendition with vocals that sound like they belong at the front of a church, and a thick, passionate band arrangement fueled by guitar, organ and drums. This "Whoop and Holler" is so propulsive, so dripping with sweat and joy and rigorous ecstasy, that the obvious temptation is to turn the stereo up louder and start speaking in musical tongues right alongside Magness and her friends.
"Stronger For It" finds Magness exploring new ground with all the chops and emotional commitment she's brought to the blues world for so long. In addition to covering Hubbard, Magness dips into the songbooks of Tom Waits, Shelby Lynne, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Ike and Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Buddy and Julie Miller and the aforementioned Sweet and Thorn. Alt-country, alt-rock, soul, blues, whatever source you want to name, Magness transforms it into something personal and downright exhilarating.
This is not a case of trying out different genre exercises to see if Magness can handle them; it's a case of finding great songs and arranging them into her own original and intoxicating approach.
But that's not all. For the first time in her career, Magness co-writes three songs herself, with producer/guitarist Dave Darling. Album opener "There It Is" offers a hard-hitting take-down of a man who hasn't lived up to expectations, while "I Won't Cry" and "Whistlin' in the Dark" mine similar themes, though with less anger and more strength. All three are impishly hook-filled, and they stand neatly alongside the songs by the more celebrated writers.
St. Louisians have one more reason to listen closely to this record, as the drummer on this album is Matt Tecu, a local boy made good who has been working in the Los Angeles session scene for quite some time. In this town, he's long remembered as the drummer for the Unconscious back in the early '90s. Here, he plays tastefully and impeccably, and he matches the vocal prowess and nuance of Janiva Magness as if they were born to play together.
"Stronger For It" will be released on March 13 on Alligator Records.