The latest release from Heart’s lead singer Ann Wilson under the banner of The Ann Wilson Thing, Focus #2, might strike many new listeners as unsettlingly abrupt. Instead, however, it represents a sharpening of focus all great artists experience from time to time. The detritus of commercial success is a pressure they no longer feel and, invariably, their vision turns towards dealing with their remaining artistic concerns as cleanly and neatly as possible. Ann Wilson on this recording is Ann Wilson unadorned. She can afford to kick aside the vast history of her “home” band and, instead, free her musical muse to follow whatever direction it calls her in. Two of the EP’s songs, the covers of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” are interspersed around two original songs composed for this release. The production is the typical high end job you would naturally expect for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and Wilson’s fierce bellow belies decades of service in popular music. She’s definitely still raging against any kind of light dying.
Focus #2 opens thunderously. Wilson’s churning, chaotic cover of the Hendrix classic “Manic Depression” doesn’t attempt to pay note by note tribute to Jimi, but instead wants to capture his spirit and filter it through the powerful prism of Wilson’s voice. Guitarist and co-songwriter with Wilson on the EP’s original songs, Craig Bartok, definitely exerts a great deal of effort to approximate Hendrix’s playing on the song, but he nails the part while still managing to add a substantial amount of his own dash. Wilson’s turn towards softer territory comes with the cut “Fighten fer Life”. It is, easily, the EP’s most vulnerable moment musically and benefits enormously from a heart rendering vocal. It likewise illustrates how Wilson’s voice has lost very little of her singing skills. “Fighten fer Life”, likewise, has a surprisingly rustic folk edge.
Her cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is the album’s highlight. Before the song begins, Wilson semi-warns the audience that the song is intended to be performed as a duet, but she will try out both people in the song. Hailing from Gabriel’s mid-80’s mini masterpiece, So, Wilson makes a number of important shifts to her rearrangement, like de-empathizing the keyboard and post-production swirl adorning so much of original. Wilson ably fills the role of both singers in this song and her imaginative powers allow her to do so. It ends up as touching, in its own way, as a single second in Gabriel’s classic original, “Anguish” is ball and chain, bucket of blood bluesy brilliance. Wilson tears into the vocal melody and lyrical content alike with a mighty, life-afrimative growl. It ends Focus #2 on a very impassioned note and helps give listeners a final reminder of the talent that has sustained this long, successful career. Focus #2 achieves a perfect balance between such disparate musical forms that Wilson makes it sound easy when you know it isn’t anything like that.