Steppin’ into Stardom: Judith Hill “Back In Time”

judith hill, prince, back in time, 20 steps from stardom
On Back In Time singer Judith Hill offers a unique and idiosyncratic group of performances that distance her from her back up singer roots. Featured prominently in the Academy Award winning documentary 20 Steps from Stardom Hill’s segment typified the predicament and pitfalls of trying to move from a reasonably stable career providing support vocals for “stars” to shouldering a spotlight position of her own. Before that she had seen a major tour and possible springboard for solo recognition evaporate with the untimely passing of Michael Jackson. Her extensive rehearsals with the “King of Pop” appear in the film This Is It. Hill also tried the TV competition route with a stint on The Voice in 2013. Although garnering her nationwide attention it did not produce the hoped for star turn.

Glass Slipper…
Fortunately in the past year Hill came to the attention of Prince and the “always a bridesmaid” situation changed. A few weeks of recording at the Minneapolis Music Maharajah’s Paisley Park studio has yielded a sterling setting for her talents. The album has a tight modern sound but as one might expect from the title and production by a stylistic sponge like Prince there is also a deep awareness of musical heritage.

Laying Tracks…
The opening track “As Trains Go By” is laden with vinyl “rice krispies” and a throaty distorted vocal that could have been sampled from a 1930’s field recording. That said, lyrical content is cutting edge with references to specifics of recent racial tensions warning “While Martin sleeps Brother Malcolm is awake” leavened only by the chorus “Like CeeLo Green in a sea of red lights, might as well be famous, since I ain’t gonna be white,” which cannot help but produce a grin. “Trains” and second tune “Turn Up” set the stage with funky pocket grooves, lots of unison singing and “character” voices, reminiscent of likely benchmark Sly and The Family Stone.

Though each song can stand on its own merit, the excellent track sequencing ultimately makes for a better complete listening experience than a “needle drop” excursion. There’s even an old school crossfade as the jaunty lope and thunky low end of “Cure” (think “Penny Lane” period Beatles) slides into the rainy day dream jazz of “Love Trip.” “Angel In The Dark” is a spare groove with angular electro-string hooks and a radio ready chorus ripe for multiple remixes. “Cry, Cry, Cry” presents a sophisticated mid-century blues complete with bee-sting purple lead guitar lines. “Beautiful Life” is spun off a delicate piano vamp and wrapped in a rich arrangement. It has a delicious Gladys Knight vibe and I’d love to hear it performed live. “Wild Tonight” and “Jammin’ in the Basement” will ably hip check “Uptown Funk” in your current party mixes.

SkeletonPete Says…
A session singer’s stock in trade is as invisible mortar for a lead vocalist’s sonic structure. On “Back In Time” we finally hear who Judith Hill actually is, in her own voice. It’s an exciting, enjoyable, and refreshing revelation and these tracks smartly stay focused on that vocal personality.