Joanna Connor, "Six String Stories" (M.C. Records)
"Six String Stories" is her first studio album in 14 years, but thousands of gigs in the interim have only enriched Chicago-based Joanna Connor's fierce guitar skills and expressive, bluesy vocals.
Written mostly with longtime bandmate Marion Lance Lewis, Connor goes from blues to rock to near-gospel and back in a striking mix.
The time off to raise a daughter has sharpened Connor's songwriting while also enhancing her dynamic range — the powerful drive of her earlier work remains but some tracks take it down a notch or two and provide breathing room.
"It's A Woman's Way" kicks off the album with a distinct female perspective but Connor's solos erase any gender bias. Her cover of Jill Scott's "Golden" is more relaxed but just as passionate as the original, while also referencing Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City."
"Heaven" starts with rolling percussion like Joni Mitchell's "Dreamland" but then builds a tower of a song with sinuous acoustic guitar lines, a horn section, Bonnie Raitt-like vocals, a trumpet solo and a passionate sermon.
Instrumental "Halsted Street" purrs like medium-paced acoustic Al Di Meola until a brief drum solo paves the way for fretboard frenzy and Connor shreds any preconceptions you may harbor about a woman who describes herself as looking "like somebody's mom."