It's no surprise that a record from New Orleans soul diva Irma Thomas and Southern songwriter Dan "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" Penn is packed with feeling.
My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn comprises 13 songs Penn co-wrote with various collaborators, including Thomas. One of the most engaging tracks is "Keep It Simple" (RealAudio excerpt), an upbeat tune the two co-wrote with Carson Whitsett. Thomas burnishes it with gutsy growls and earthy spoken asides that suggest what her exchanges with listeners might be like during her live shows.
The more thoughtful "Irma's Song" was the result of Penn and Spooner Oldham placing Thomas' unfinished lyrics in an acoustic-flavored musical setting.
Thomas delivers the snappier midtempo numbers with rhythmic panache, but it's her elegant restraint on ballads such as "Not Enough Time To Change" and "Blue in the Heart" that's truly moving. Exhibiting a rueful understanding of love's habit of overruling common sense, she torches beauties such as "My Heart's in Memphis" (RealAudio excerpt), "A Woman Left Lonely" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Zero Will Power" with a slow-burning passion that's utterly convincing.
It's surprising that some of the best-known songs here the Penn/Oldham nuggets "I'm Your Puppet" and "I Do" feature some of the least effective arrangements. The fault certainly isn't in the singer or the songs. The sultry Thomas' powerful vocals have retained the deep warmth and smooth, creamy tones that distinguished her early hit "Time Is on My Side" and her 1960s recordings with producer Allen Toussaint.