Concept albums seem to come naturally to Karrin Allyson. Since she first started making records in the mid-1990s, she’s found numerous ways to organize her far-flung repertoire so that a collection of songs coalesces into a larger, eminently satisfying statement. In some ways her 17th release Shoulder to Shoulder builds on this track record, but despite the evident thought, care, and resources marshalled for the project, it’s a case of diminishing musical returns.
A celebration and deep historical dive into the women’s suffrage movement, the album is pegged to the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which established the vote for American women (except African-American women living in Southern states, who—along with their male counterparts—didn’t have much shot at the franchise until the 1965 Voting Rights Act). Allyson has found 19th- and early 20th-century songs that fueled the movement and treated them to arrangements by John Daversa and a stellar band featuring Ingrid Jensen, Allison Brown, Helen Sung, Mindi Abair, and rising star Endea Owens. Several all-star guests recite relevant texts, like Harry Belafonte reading Frederick Douglass and Rosanne Cash performing Susan B. Anthony. And there’s another dazzling roster of guest vocalists, including Kurt Elling, Denise Donatelli, Madeleine Peyroux, and Veronica Swift. After one or two spins one can always skip the recitation tracks, but the fact is that few songs here are more than historical curiosities, no matter how well-wrought the arrangements.
The album concludes with Allyson’s two original contributions, and they offer a glimpse at what could have been. “Way Down Below” is a rousing plea for sisterhood and uplift featuring some sterling violin work by Regina Carter. And the hip-hop-steeped “Big Discount” offers a trenchant protest against the wage gap and sexism with some pointed rapping by Rapsody. These songs combine a message with melodies that welcome a return visit.
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