Dirty Shine is the third album released by blues shouter, musician, and songwriter ZZ Ward, but you can’t stop by just referring to her affinity for blues music. I wouldn’t be interested in an artist who treats that style like a butterfly pinned under glass. Blues, for ZZ Ward, is a malleable thing, musical clay she reshapes and transfigures into previously unrealized dimensions. She doesn’t hem herself in with the listener’s preconceived expectations of what her music should sound like and, on this new release, lets her creativity range free in assorted wild and unpredictable directions. It makes for one of 2023’s most invigorating listening experiences. I felt enthralled after a single pass through Dirty Shine’s fourteen tracks.
The first full track “Ride or Die” has a singer/songwriter pedigree cut with just the right dose of attitude. Much of that attitude comes from Ward’s voice, a cawing, raucous instrument unlike any other voice I’ve heard in modern music. The stutter of the song’s primary acoustic guitar figure is the track’s musical center and matches up well with her voice. Vic Mensa’s hip-hop contributions definitely add extra spice to an already memorable cut.
“Fadeaway” opens with a snippet of a scratchy blues field holler before dirty harmonica cuts in and the song kicks off in earnest. Harp is a recurring musical element on the album and pairs with Ward’s singing like a hand in a glove. Percussion for many of these songs sounds chaotic on the surface, but a closer listen reveals it’s an intentional and controlled effect that broadens the rhythmic character of the songs.
Jean Deaux guests on the album’s first single “On One” and creates quite a storm working in tandem with Ward. This anthem to self-empowerment rages with tremendous bluster, but it’s never sound and fury signifying nothing. A close listen to the song’s words reveals Ward staking in flag on firm ground and striding forth to conquer the music world. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
A flaming slide guitar lick, practically dirtied up beyond recognition, burns listeners from deep in the center of “Friends Like These”. Ward holds nothing back here. She unleashes the full volume of her invective against backstabbers and gossipers without mercy. The switchblade musical accompaniment cuts deep into you with its jagged edginess. “OverdoZZe” continues milking the same intensity with superb effect. It’s a little less raw and mangled than “Friends Like These” while still essentially sharing the same rugged character.
Aloe Blacc joins Ward for the album’s penultimate tune “Tin Cups”. It’s one of the most restrained moments on the release, but there are still plenty of hints of fury bubbling beneath the song’s surface. We get a final taste of the powerful inspiration lighting up Ward’s latest collection with the last track “Don’t Let Me Down”. It owes a bit more direct debt to the blues than some earlier cuts, but the same cross-section of influences makes its presence felt. It’s an impossible to forget final message from ZZ Ward and I believe ends her best album yet with decisive emotion.
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