As a member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame outfit Heart, Ann Wilson scarcely needs any real introduction. Her voice has been a staple of popular music for over thirty years and now occupies a secure place as one of the pre-eminent singing talents of her time. While Ann and the band she began so many years ago with sister Nancy Wilson no longer enjoy the same high level commercial profile of years gone by, they remain vital performing artists still engaged with the impulse to communicate that initially drew them to the spotlight. Ann’s latest solo venture, The Ann Wilson Thing, has released two low-key EPs emphasizing her continued artistry and relevance. The latest, Focus #2, is a four song collection with two covers and two Wilson originals co-written with her guitarist Craig Bartok. Two of the EP’s four songs are live recordings and they amply demonstrate how, even in the presumed twilight of her career, Wilson still maintains enough command over her talents that the audience is clearly riveted by her performance.
There are some surprises. Wilson has proven time and again over the years to have a real penchant for singing uncompromising rock, but one can be forgiven for not associating her with Hendrix so readily. Her gritty, completely convincing cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” doesn’t seek to remake the wheel, but it isn’t entirely reverent either. Wilson intuitively understands that her mandate is two-fold: hit certain marks for those familiar with the song and listening while still claiming some small, but significant, portion of the track for yourself. Guitarist Craig Bartok does an exceptional job along similar lines; he’s able to invoke Hendrix’s spirit without ever seeming too slavish to his memory. The next song, the first of two originals, “Fighten Fer Life” finds Wilson drawing herself back into the quasi-folk textures so much more common in the first half of her career. The elasticity of her voice is nothing short of remarkable. She moves seamlessly from the throat-shredding bombast of covering Hendrix while still rendering this quite sensitively – it’s an impressive achievement.
Her cover of Peter Gabriel’s classic duet, “Don’t Give Up”, is a gusty move that she makes pay through nothing else but sheer brio and skill. Wilson and her musical collaborators wisely keep their live arrangement as minimalist as possible thus providing Wilson an even wider forum for vocal extemporizing. This is her true showcase on the EP and underscores a long held belief that Wilson might be one of the nation’s finest songwriting interpreters. The swampy curl of the EP’s final song “Anguish” is well embodied by Wilson’s emphatic and highly emotive reading. The track emerges from the speakers as electric mud, dense, and darker by far than anything on preceding it on the release. This is a diamond hard, impressive gem from one of the best performers still working today, age be damned. The Ann Wilson Thing scores more to the fact that they craft intensely believable music than they ever do thanks to Wilson’s celebrity cachet.
9 out of 10 stars.