Trying to position Jenn Howard’s stellar, powerfully reflective and deeply cathartic new breakthrough album Valiant Women as a project only a mature, battle tested woman who’s been to hell and back could create, the crafters of the New Orleans born and bred singer/songwriter's her bio material make mention of her struggles, travels and near misses of the spotlight with Project NIM, the band she joined in high school and led from the ages of 16-21.
After having so much hope so young, she ultimately lost faith in her hopes and dreams. When she finally recorded a solo album in her early 30’s (2009’s Up at Night), she was clearly still working out the emotional issues related to those traumas. For all that, the most relevant detail comes later, attending Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend music festival in Mexico with her stepmom, Gretchen. Howard realized she still had something to offer as a songwriter – an epiphany that manifests emphatically with lyrics that tap into relationship complexities, hard won life truths and phoenix rising vibes, all grounded in the simmering, often horn drenched blues/rock/soul/gospel energies of her hometown.
No track captures this explosive, rootsy yet ultimately triumphant aesthetic as well as the album’s first single “Microphone,” an autobiographical chance for the singer (backed by the irrepressible harmonies of NOLA legend Ivan Neville) to declare: “Time for a shake up/I’m fired up, come on behave/Not time to fold ‘em.” The balance of intense grit/searing vocal runs and more intimate, merciful graces she offers on the new 10 track collection have earned her favorable comparisons to everyone from Etta James to Susan Tedeschi. All fine and well, but the impact of Carlile’s trademark mix of these vocal dynamics, those emotional journeys she puts us on, show out even more.
Great examples of the way Howard builds her personal emotional journey are in the guttural fire of “Better Than You Think” (the searing opener that grabs us by the throat and heart, daring us not to let go), offset a few tunes later by the soft-spoken, piano driven ballad “Hold On,” in which she underscores introspection into her past mistakes that have now led to a happier place with a deep, soulful sense of melancholy. The barnburners like “Pocket Fox” draw us in and get our toes tappin, and the groove and horns keep us engaged, but ultimately it’s the power ballads that keep us hangin’ on.