May 10, 2023

Serbian guitar prodigy Ana Popović returns to the fray this spring with her 10th studio album Power, a welcome return to the limelight, as the Covid crisis and a bout of life-threatening illness had threatened to put her out of action for good. This is her first album since Like It On Top in 2018, and she credits her return to longtime collaborator and powerhouse bassist Buthel, who kept her love for music and performance alive during her period of extensive chemotherapy. “He took care of the band, oversaw the music, and even chose wigs and hats with me,” she says, “while helping me through every difficult day on the road. This record brought my spirit the salvation it needed, and ultimately, the music and my ’64 Fender Stratocaster saved my life.”

Photo by Brian Rasic

A grandiose claim indeed, but it was incredible to see Ana, Buthel and a top-notch band rocking out at the Old Mill Stores in Kent this March as if nothing had happened, and this album is incredibly positive and uplifting, seeing as it was the result of songwriting sessions during that dark time. Ana and Buthel wrote every song, some with input from other writers – except for one, the motivational opener Rise Up, a song by Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the late Mark Selby and his wife Tia, for Selby’s last album before he himself succumbed to cancer in 2017. Selby’s original version was released on his acoustic album The Naked Sessions, but Ana’s crew ratchet up the jazz and the tempo, and she plays a heavily chorused guitar on the solos.

This is followed by Power Over Me, an upbeat soul-pop-jazz number, with backing vocals in between the lines and horns in the chorus, and a chunkier guitar sound with a distinctly Santana edge. Those horns are a talking point in themselves; we are used to hearing soft, mellow horns as a backdrop to jazz and blues numbers, but these are more immediate, with a sharper, raspier edge that brings them out of the shadows.

The band then launches into a number simply titled Doin’ This, in which Ana pays homage to her chosen profession. This is a feature of her live performance too, in which she claims that writing, playing and performing is just the best thing imaginable, and everything’s all right, as long as she can carry on doing this. It’s a bongo-backed blues, with a Funky Town intro and up-tempo Latin interludes.

Light swing ballad Luv’n Touch brings a lot of these features together, heavy on the jazz, with a nylon-strung acoustic guitar intro, cool jazz-brush drums, and heavy on those brazen horns. It brings Queen’s Latino pastiche Who Needs You to mind, as Mexican as it can be, and Ana’s guitar solo at the end is pure Carlos Santana – I mean, if no one had told me any different, I would confidently say that he must have been playing a guest spot. Queen Of The Pack pulls things back into pop territory, still tinged with jazz, but more in the Miami Sound Machine vein; this one features some nice, funky bass and a sweet, tight ending.

Even though Ana is generally described as a blues player, her style has always veered more towards the jazz end of that spectrum, and almost every number on this album is jazz or jazz-pop to some degree, except for the next song, the current single Strong Taste, which is fast blues-rock, with driving snare work. A massed vocal chorus underpinned with tasteful slide guitar backs a spoken section at the end, right up to a pin-sharp stop. Every number has been well done, but this is the first one to stand out as a genuine highlight for me – it doesn’t stop there though, as the romantic duet Recipe Is Romance, with more acoustic guitar and clear-toned jazz phrasings at the end, is another stand-out. Both of these tracks are featured at the foot of this page.

Deep Down is funky soul-pop, electric piano-backed and groovy, followed by the cool, funk-driven rock song Ride It, with its repeated “Ride till the wheels fall off” refrain, possibly the hookiest number in the set. Another highlight is Flicker ’n Flame, the most blatant homage to Hendrix imaginable. Song structure, singing style and guitar work are all straight from the guitar god’s repertoire, with elements of blues, rock, funk and even punk. Again, it’s so Hendrix, I was reaching for the album credits to check whether it’s a cover, but no, it’s a pure original. Nevertheless, it makes sense of the number of Hendrix tribute concerts, tours and albums that have featured Ana’s skills, going right back to the Blue Haze compilation in 2000. Just one more to go, and it’s another pop-soul number, Turn My Luck, featuring a clapping rhythm, drawing the album to a close after just over 40 minutes.

No less than 17 separate musicians appear on the album, including two drummers, two rhythm guitarists and three keyboard players, plus an extensive horn section and a number of backing vocalists. The entire live touring band is in there, plus as many of her regular studio hands as she can muster. But although it’s clear from these songs that Ana is a superb guitarist with a tremendous band, I can say from experience that it’s the live environment where she really shines; her virtuoso skills take flight and each member of the band lays their credentials firmly on the table. At a gig, it’s the musicians you hear, on record, it’s the songs. Fortunately, she and Buthel also write really good songs, and she’s a great singer with an excellent voice. So you just can’t lose either way with Ana.

Power, the new album from Ana Popović, is available now on CD, vinyl and digital, via ArtisteXclusive Records