For some artists, a “return to roots” simply means the artist has returned to his/her musical roots—in other words, the music style that first put that artist on the map. However, on her new record 4th Street Feeling, rocker Melissa Etheridge takes this idea much deeper by returning to her roots in a much deeper sense—as in, returning to her upbringing, to her biographical roots. The end result is a record that is highly authentic in its feel, and is one of her better efforts over the past few years.
What’s the difference between musical and biographical roots? In the case of Melissa Etheridge, who made her name on a bluesy rock vibe, it means that she isn’t actually limited to that genre. Oh, yes, fans will find plenty of blues-rock on this record (“Shout Now” and “Sympathy” provide great examples), as well as Etheridge’s signature desperate, raspy vocals throughout. But 4th Street Feeling isn’t drawing all its inspiration from a rock style; it’s drawing from a place, as in a physical place. 4th Street, you see, is the main street of Etheridge’s childhood home, Leavenworth, Kansas, and the lyrical record draws plenty of references to her own past. In keeping with this theme, she delves on occasion into other “rootsy” styles. You can catch a wisp of folk here and there on various tracks; “Falling Up” plays like modern country; “Rock and Roll Me” is far more of a simmering blues song than a rock tune; and Etheridge gets just plain down and funky on “Be Real.”
Despite the genre-bending, however, the album plays very cohesively, not at all fragmented, every song playing as though it belongs on the record. It feels authentic, not contrived. And speaking of authentic, there’s one other factor that adds to the record’s very “real” feeling. If you hear guitars on the record—Melissa Etheridge is playing them herself, the first time in her discography that she handles that role completely on her own. Keyboards? Harmonica? Also her.
While 4th Street Feeling is filled with great musical moments, I have to give props to what I consider to be the stand-out track of the record, “The Shadow of a Black Crow.” While not the rocking-est track on the album, it’s dark, guttural, bluesy, and sounds like it could feature on an episode of Hell On Wheels. Love it.
Overall, Melissa Etheridge has created a record that does much more than capture her musical roots: it captures a time and place that defines Etheridge more as a person than even as a musician. She has given us a very real window into her life, and that makes me believe her on every song. 4th Street Feeling is probably not destined to be her master-work, but it is definitely the best record she’s put out in awhile. Well worth a listen.