During her rather turbulent career, Beth Hart has been compared to Janis Joplin and Joan Armatrading, but anyone seeing her raucous and powerful live shows would do well to spot those references. As with many singers and bands, her albums have often struggled to capture the ingredients of those live performances, though. But here they have decided to do something different.
Inspired by blues and gospel, Hart has always laid herself bare on record, leaving nothing in the studio. But never has she sounded like she does here. My California moves her firmly into Melissa Etheridge territory in sound and style. Although more commercial sounding, there is still a rawness alongside some thumping tunes and moments of extreme tenderness.
The opening title track will surprise, and may even scare some of her hardcore fans. It is a spacious reflection on missing your home, with guitars and keyboards moving between speakers as Hart's voice trembles soulfully. Piano led ballads 'Life Is Calling' and 'Love Is The Hardest' might be a little too middle of the road for some, but they have infectious hooks, and either one could provide Hart's biggest hit to date.
Producer Rune Westberg challenged the singer to reign in the screaming of her vocals more than ever before, and tell some stories. He wanted an album with one kind of sound, rather than the mix fans are used to. And he has succeeded in finding something new and magical. Many of the songs have a vulnerability and fragility, which draws the listener closer. Such is the intensity captured in the studio, you can almost hear her voice crack on 'Take It Easy On Me' as she pleads "If I gave it up and let the wall come down, would you take my hand, would you show me how."
Hart is someone who has struggled with addiction and the subject is touched on throughout ("the drugs make me sane but don't make me better" on 'Like You') but much here is about her internal emotional struggles and relationships with family. 'Sister Heroine' is about her late sister, but ends up being one of the more positive tracks, while 'Weight of the World' is a tender trip down memory lane to a youth long lost.
Beth Hart has had some success in the States so far but the songs on My California are so strong, it is hard not to think her career has taken a turn. On this form there is very little out there to compete, for raw, yet well-produced emotional rock.