Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Jackson with their historically stellar studios make up the musical nirvana known as “The Triangle.” Soul blues singer Lisa Mills not only traveled this mystic musical wonderland, but recorded her new release The Triangle at FAME Studios, Royal Studios, Malaco Studios and Sun Studios in those cities.
The inaugural album from Melody Place Music, The Triangle was produced by Fred Mollin, and uses several musicians from each of these fabled studios to help recreate their iconic sounds in a fresh, new way. Many of the artists accompanying Mills played on the original versions of these historic tracks. But it’s not just a paint-by-numbers cover album. Lisa Mills has the soul of Amy Winehouse, the grit of Janis Joplin, and the passion of Beth Hart all rolled into one excitingly talented performer.
Originally hailing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi (born and raised) and now based in Mobile, Alabama, Mills cites her musical influences as a mixture of Etta James, Elmore James, Freddie King, Elvis, Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday and B.B. King. All those influences are present on The Triangle, as Lisa transitions from rock and roll to torch songs, and from deep soul to gospel blues without hitting a skid.
It all kicks off with a swampy version of Little Richard’s “Greenwood, Mississippi.” Her mighty vocals, as gravelly as an Alabama back road, come across loud and clear backed by a drum-head-tight rhythm section and heaven sent horns. All that’s missing is Mr. Penniman’s piano. The tempo stays up with “Tell Mama,” the first of two Etta James songs recorded at FAME. “Tell Mama” was written and first recorded by Clarence Carter in those hallowed sound booths, and Mills shows the appropriate amount of respect to how both performers played the original. A more soulful cover of another Carter tune, “Slip Away,” follows and then the last of the FAME recorded tracks, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which was actually the B-side of “Tell Mama” from the 1967 sessions that Etta laid down. Mills’ version isn’t as torchy as Etta’s, rather she takes a unique approach with a more pop/doo-wop version that hits just right.
The next five tracks were recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, and the funk flavor of that city comes out on “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” written by Little Milton whose effigy welcomes visitors to the Blues Hall of Fame and Museum just down the road. “I’m in Love,” the Bobby Womack penned response to the haters of the day makes for a nicely done piece of The Triangle. Although “Same Time, Same Place,” was written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes for Stax, Mills creates a wonderfully torch-ish version at Royal. The horns and B-3 sound as if Mable John is in the studio, but the vocals are one hundred percent powerhouse Mills. Some of the grit leaves her vocals, as Lisa does “A Place Nobody Can Find,” and stays away on “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” The latter, first recorded by O.V. Wright has been covered by everyone from Otis Redding and Percy Sledge to the Rolling Stones and Seven Mary Three. For my money Lisa Mills has created the consummate cover of that timeless soul classic.
“Someone Else is Steppin’ In,” is next up and the first track recorded at Malaco in Jackson. Mills’ version is funky blues from a woman’s perspective, just as Denise LaSalle wrote it. ZZ Hill’s version became so popular that it’s easy to forget at times that his wasn’t the original. It’s one of the newer songs on the album, with Hill’s first release coming out in the early 80s, but it’s dripping with Southern flavor. The extended saxophone solo that takes us out of the song is stellar and the perfect way to end the track.
Just when I though she can’t possibly get more soulful, here comes “I’ll Always Love You.” Mills literally pours her heart out on this track, with her voice rising as the song goes on. “Travel On,” is Gospel, but without the lyrics you’d never know it. The music is as powerfully soulful as any track Malaco ever released and Mills gets right in the groove with it. Who could forget the late, great Bobby “Blue” Bland performing “Members Only?” Lisa Mills sure didn’t, and she brings it on with a softer touch. Her vocals going from a whisper to a powerful crescendo, it’s another song she makes her own.
The bonus track, “Just Walking in the Rain,” was recorded at Sun Studios with just Lisa and her guitar. Her vocals are soft and with just her guitar for accompaniment it certainly leaves the listener wanting more. Originally released in 1953 on the Sun Records label it was recorded by The Prisonaires, an American doo-wop group while the band was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. The sound of Mills and her guitar, combined with the magical acoustics of that iconic space create the perfect finale.
The original recordings that came from the studios in ‘The Triangle’ literally changed the world. Southern soul was begotten in those consecrated rooms when Gospel music and the Devil’s music met face to face. Lisa Mills is the new revival Pastor of that movement, and The Triangle is her Holy Writ.
Artist: Lisa Mills
Title: The Triangle
Label: Melody Place LLC/BMG
Release Date: January 24, 2020
Running Time: 50:21