Ten albums into a solo career, with eight US Blues Music Awards nominations to boot, it’s ironic that Ana Popovic still remains something of a best kept secret over here in the UK.
Born in Belgrade, Serbia, and influenced by her guitar playing father, she went onto form the band Hush while still a student, who with the dissolution of communist-created Yugoslavia were free to travel and perform in places like Greece and Hungary. However, it was in Holland where she really began to make a name for herself, forming a crack hot band of her own there, who would perform elsewhere on the continent. Come the new millennium, she’d signed with Ruf Records and began recording over in the USA. In more recent years, she moved there with her family, her career ascending accordingly.
True, she’s made visits to the UK for short tours, and was over here back in March, but she’s not as well-known as other female blues guitarists, a number of whom have broken through here in the UK.
It’s not down to talent, let me assure you. A strong songsmith, impressive guitar player who’s exuberant on slide, and probably the only person I’ve heard make credible covers of Eric Clapton tunes made during that period where he really needed to get sober so he could rediscover the blues.
So, why is she not as well-known here as others? Aside from not touring here as much, you mean? Well, maybe it’s because mass dissemination of the blues as a musical art form to the great unwashed in the provinces was primarily initiated by noisy urchins likes The Rolling Stones and The Animals back in the ‘60s, so we tend to prefer our blues more rough and ready than slick, if we’re being honest about it.
Popovic can cut it up with the best of them, but if we’re pitching camps, hers is set up high in that field where B.B; Stevie Ray, and the whole Memphis gang hung out in, rather than down by the river where Muddy, Albert and others made their stomping ground.
She once even went out with a nine-piece band, but averages six these days. That Power has a line-up that features six horn players, three keyboard players, two backing vocalists, and two rhythm guitarists aside from Popovic herself, alongside a couple of drummers and a bass player also means someone was paying a hefty studio bill for the recording, and they’re looking for a return on their money.
This record is intended to sell beyond blues fans and into the mainstream: directly, in promotion for other revenue platforms, and/or act as a promotion for wider touring opportunities.
There’s also always been a lot of that old school funk to her playing which she’s quite brilliant at, and her fondness for horn sections shows that, nor is she averse to adding some jazzy goings on. Indeed, when I caught her live pre-Covid, the band she had could well have been auditioning for Steely Dan. Having given, Power many a play through now, there’s not as much evidence for that here, but there’s sure enough ambition felt to go further career-wise… And why not, we would ask were we not Brits and pretend to refute fame and all the rewards it might offer.
Ambition, if only for security is one thing. Personal artistic expression another. Popovic has made incredibly valid statements about female empowerment through her songs in the past, while also coyly playing the role of confident sexual being. That doesn’t change with Power, but the time leading up to her recording it, and during, certainly did – She was diagnosed with breast cancer, having lost her mother to it but three years previous. This at a time when what was seen as a plague had been unleashed on the world, soon to be followed by a Russian despot throwing his rattle out the pram looking to regain lost communist dominions (no doubt with her homeland on the long-term radar).
A little odd then, that the stark constructivism graphic design that powered cold war Russian propaganda bears such a resemblance to the joined black and white hands of Power’s album cover. Yet, the ideology behind it is obvious: to demonstrate what are too often portrayed as differences are simply not there if we work together. I suspect this happened before the woke enterprise became a cash cow for many, else designers would still be submitting roughs for approval. But, again, white boys and girls playing the blues make such worthy claim towards racial unity each time they pick up a guitar or sing. More so, though, this album is about Ana Popovic picking herself up off the floor that life had so venomously tossed her down on, and with the support of her bass player/musical director, Buthel, writing and recording this album between fourteen chemotherapy treatments and flights to and from Los Angles and Amsterdam, where she received medical treatment.
Enough with what got us to here, now is the time to ‘Rise Up!’ Opening the album with a Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, and Mark Selby cover. The original was a mixture of acoustic and electric blues rocking, here it’s a more sophisticated soulful arrangement, keyboard led with a propulsive bass line, key words tweaked so it’s a message with nods to the sisterhood though overall it’s more about mood, both vocally and in the music.
‘Power Over Me’ is more up tempo, drums giving it some, horns and harmony vocals up loud, but her own lead vocals prevailing most expressively, as she warns a lover that despite the fact she might all loved up and caught in the moment, not to take advantage of her. There’s fiery guitar blazing its way throughout but first time round it’s only when she starting soloing you notice how it has been burrowing away. ‘Doin’ This’ drives the beat even faster, there’s a Hendrix ‘Stone Free’ undercurrent to this but it’s hidden under the R ’n B of it all, while once more the long-term listener will nod approvingly how she’s continued to evolve in range, tone and emotive delivery as a singer.
‘Luv’n Touch’ comes in at just the right moment. A cheek-to-cheek bristling jazzy romance number where Latin-styled acoustic guitars give way to ever more sensual electrics, so much so that by the end her guitars’ raging with passion even as group vocals repeat breathlessly towards orgasm. That at times, her voice here sounds like Carly Simon, is intended as a plus. ‘Queen Of The Pack’ is a bass-popping belter where she’s making out like Ernie Isley on wiry guitar, lyrically sharing themes akin to the opening two tracks.
Fast and flirtatious drums propel the hard-on shuffle of ‘Strong Taste’, some tasteful organ and slide guitar exchanges between the more jazz-tinted vocal stylisations and near-rap deliveries. A jazz guitar line loops us into another smoochy dance number for ‘Recipe Is Romance’, whereas the video to this single more directly shows that preparing yourself for a night of love, begins with loving yourself first. ‘Deep Down’ follows suitably as a sexy-ish bluesy bottom-end groove number, then ‘Ride It’ trips along on emphatic riddling guitar lines, syncopated organ and horns wailing support from the back, it’s funky but respectable R ‘n B, come Philadelphia soul.
A wailing and a tumbling guitar sees Popovic dig in deep, over a fabulous drum sound, for ‘Flicker & Flame ‘, hitting hard and fast one minute, funked on a stop/start breakdown the next, her Hendrix influences to the fore once more. By contrast, final number, ‘Turn My Luck’, opens with a Gershwin-like orchestral flow prior to claps and percussion prevailing for a modern R ‘n B rap, with assorted leading and backing vocals styles making their way in, wherein she outlines the dark side of life that keeps “feeding this monster”, how it’s “a test of my faith”, the overall intent to break free from the yoke of cancer or whatever causes you your woes real or imagined. Even while there’s a feel that some big dance video production is what a marketing man would want for this track, the increasingly distorted guitar that cuts through from the background reveals a stronger subtext of meaning.
To what degree Popovic’s condition during the recording of Power affected her overall involvement is questionable. Increasingly, her albums have been moving towards this overall slicker rhythm with blues mood, the arrangements take on a far greater sophistication here. Technically, as a singer, some of the songs featured, are among her best, and heartfelt, though perhaps we lose some of the innovatory flare of her guitar in the process.
Power needs to be played loud. Otherwise, the listener can be misled, presuming it too polite, though not background muzak, and the lady deserves to be heard – Most certainly the triad that is ‘Luv’n Touch’, ‘Queen Of The Pack’ and ‘Strong Taste’ deserve your attention.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Queen Of The Pack is released via ArtisteXclusive Records and is available from here.
- Official Website
- Rise Up!
- Power Over Me
- Doin’ This
- Luv’n Touch
- Queen Of The Pack
- Strong Taste
- Recipe Is Romance
- Deep Down
- Ride It
- Flicker & Flame
- Turn My Luck