The Ann Wilson Thing – Focus #2
The latest solo release from longtime Heart lead singer and Hall of Famer Ann Wilson, Focus #2, is a laser-focused EP featuring two covers and two original compositions. Wilson’s guitarist Craig Bartok assisted her with writing the new pieces and his guitar work helps distinguish them, along with the cover choices. The cover songs are live recordings and the production does an outstanding job of capturing the band’s performance and enthusiastic audience alike with vivid clarity. The studio recordings are similarly distinguished by the production’s obvious attention to detail and the balanced presentation of two radically different arrangements and styles. One isn’t accustomed to encountering EP releases with such artistic weight, but there’s little question after hearing this release that Wilson is as invigorated as ever both in her capacity as a performer and a writer.
Another essential ingredient in her continuing relevance is that she is still, at heart, a music fan. She pays some debt to the past opening the EP with an impassioned rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”. Any doubts that an aging Ann Wilson lacks the needed vocal power for such a propulsive rocker are instantly swept away when her voice enters. On the true proving ground for any singer, the stage, Wilson belts out Hendrix’s lyrics with every bit of the same intense sonic firepower manifested by her surrounding musicians. The raucous first song transitions neatly into the much more sedate “Fighten fer Life”, a traditionally influenced folk song with appealing instrumental textures and a straightforward arrangement. Wilson shows herself to still possess the ability for alternating between wildly different musical approaches while remaining credible throughout.
She takes on a surprising choice with her second cover. Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is a fine song, but the original is very much a track of its time, awash with faint progressive trappings, ambient space, and glistening keyboard textures. In Ann Wilson’s hands, however, the song becomes a spartan blues, sinewy, and desperate with wide-eyed longing. Some of that same wide-eyed longing finds its way into the EP’s final track, “Anguish”. The second of the release’s two original compositions sets up Wilson with a perfect vehicle for exploring the growing bluesy gravitas in her vocal chords. Guitarist Craig Bartok turns in some outstanding guitar work that never overshadows Wilson’s presence in the song.
Focus #2 uniquely juggles the past, present, and future in a neat little package. Wilson is in fine fettle throughout the recording and sounds eternally youthful without even so much as a second betraying the decades of live performance her vocal chords have endured. Whatever one’s feelings about institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s impossible for a fair-minded listener to finish a single pass through Focus #2 and not agree that Wilson deserves inclusion in such a lofty-minded body. This is the stuff of legend.
9 out of 10 stars.