Reviewed by: Geno Thackara
The name Muddy Magnolias sounds purely Southern, but their music extends from dusty Texas to concrete Brooklyn. The duality of the phrase couldn’t be more apt. Kallie North (actually the half of the duo from the South, go figure) apparently grew up steeped in country, creole and jam bands. Jessy Wilson comes from the heart of the city, raised on blues, gospel and R&B both classic and modern. They’re fueled by an irrepressible love for American music in any form with voices (and hearts) big enough to encompass it all.
You wouldn’t know they’re such a young outfit from listening to Broken People. Not only do the pair sound more worldly than they probably have a right to at their age, their debut recording is as sharp and well-produced as a seasoned major-label group’s (with the help of a backing combo mostly rooted in jazz). You can tell something about an act by the quality of friends it attracts: Wilson has sung with the likes of Alicia Keys and John Legend, and Muddy Magnolias aren’t riding anyone’s coattails but have the chops to back it up. By the time they reach for the sky with the closing ballad, it’s obvious why Legend was so happy to drop in and sing along.
Broken People shows the go-for-it attitude of a duo that doesn’t care what they’re not supposed to do. Things blend beautifully in spots like “Devil’s Teeth,” which marries a swamp-country hook with frisky beats out of a dance club. Bright gospel makes sort of an odd treatment for a song like “Brother, What Happened?” – such a rousing hand-clapping chorus really needs a more optimistic message behind it, although most of the album otherwise has optimism in spades (see the soulful “Got It Goin’ On” the next time you’re having a bad day). “Take Me Home” turns out not to be a down-home Phil Collins cover, which is most disappointing since that could have been the greatest thing I’ve heard all year. But to be fair, I can’t complain about the charming cowgirl tune it really is instead.
As with most debuts there are some growing pains: a lyrical cliche here or excessively dramatic moment there. Wilson can tend toward melisma – the act of stretching a single syllable out over many notes – a bit too often, somewhat like her idols Whitney and Mariah (though nowhere near as overbearingly). When her voice blends in harmony with North’s smokier twang, though, it’s a thing of beauty. No doubt they’ll sort out those little snags in time. Rough edges or not, Broken People has energy and love to spare.