Beth Hart’s studio albums have rarely given the singer a backing band that’s capable of matching her ferocious, uninhibited performances, but Don’t Explain, a collaboration with acclaimed guitarist Joe Bonamassa and his touring band, attempts to rectify that problem. The classic soul sides that Hart and Bonamassa have chosen to cover give the album a ragged, rough-edged vibe, and most of the songs are strong enough to stand up to Bonamassa’s hard-rock reinterpretations and Hart’s live-wire vocal turns.
Hart’s album-opening rendition of Ray Charles’s “Sinner’s Prayer” is a full-on bloodletting, as Hart begs desperately for forgiveness. She’s no less evocative on a blistering take on Bill Withers’s “For My Friend,” and Bonamassa’s aggressive, jagged guitar riffs match Hart’s power at every turn. On the album’s centerpiece, an eight-minute version of Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” producer Kevin Shirley wisely downplays Hart and Bonamassa’s go-for-broke performances, obscuring both the vocal and lead guitar tracks behind some lush Stax-style string arrangements for the first few moments of the song. When Hart’s gut-wrenching delivery and Bonamassa’s slow-handed guitar work finally burst through in the mix, the track transforms from a smoldering slow-burn into a jaw-dropping emotional release.
Not all of the tracks are quite so heavy or effective. The nods to the original jazz arrangement on the title track, made famous by Billie Holiday, are too on the nose, and Hart’s languid delivery isn’t up to the standards she sets on the remainder of the album. She gives a lived-in performance on “Ain’t No Way,” but that particular Aretha Franklin song makes for the album’s most conventional and safest choice; set against the surprising but perfectly on-point inclusion of Tom Waits’s “Chocolate Jesus,” which finds Hart at her most blatantly ribald, songs like “Ain’t No Way” and James’s “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” come across as less than inspired choices.
A couple of uninspired moments notwithstanding, Don’t Explain still proves that Hart makes for a simply peerless frontwoman. Not all of the songs on the album match the visceral impact of her own brutally honest material, but that’s perhaps a matter of setting unfair standards. It’s Hart’s interpretive skill and her choice of a first-rate collaborator in Bonamassa that make Don’t Explain a worthwhile project that finally allows Hart to front a band worthy of her phenomenal voice.