By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"Mmm-hmm," she nods later, spooning soup into her mouth. "That's why [the record's] so good. The songs dictated that. It was a matter of being true to what the songs were about, and they weren't about that."
Inspired in part by her painful breakup a few years ago with dancer Winifred Harris, this is an album pulled from the wreckage of a failed love affair. They're songs from the fetal position. Late night, stare at the ceiling, wonder if I should call songs. Too far gone to cry songs. Love hymns about closing your eyes and running on fumes of faith. Yet glimmers of hope twine into resilience: The album, finally, is a celebration of the ability to love at all, despite pain or grief, and in defiance of bitterness.
There are familiar Ndeg√©ocello strokes: the terrifying father figure; a consuming fear of abandonment; loneliness so deep it feels like God calling you home; images of comforting angels. And there are wholly new avenues explored: the use of steel guitar, the tripped-out industrial blues of "Wasted Time," the heightened folk influences. Bitter's two instrumental tracks, "Adam" and "Eve," purposefully carry the names of the most famous characters in perhaps the most famous myth of creation. It's a reminder that from the very beginning (though Ndeg√©ocello clarifies that she doesn't believe Adam and Eve really are the beginning, they're just potent symbols), coupledom has been fraught with danger, with the devastation of deception and betrayal. "Loyalty" is sketched with lyric details ("His oversize Dickeys cinched way up high/She lived in her books and fantasies . . .") that give it the power of a finely scribed short story. "Wasted Time," a brilliant duet with L.A. singer-songwriter (and, incidentally, Madonna's brother-in-law) Joe Henry, hijacks the ear with the hypnotic vibe conjured by the union of these two distinctive voices. Joan Armatrading's influence is all over the place. It's a lush, languid cover of Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love," though, that is Bitter's crowning glory. It's also Ndeg√©ocello's favorite track on the album.
"My greatest influence is Jimi Hendrix," she reveals, "and if he's been reincarnated, or if he's looking down, sideways, or looking up, I just wanted to tell him that I love him and thank him for opening doors for me. I just wanted to make it beautiful for him."
She also wants it known that David Gamson, her best friend and producer on her first two albums, had started production work on this one when he was kicked off the project by powers at Maverick. "We handed them some stuff that didn't sound like Janet Jackson, and they didn't get it. I was sick of how they talked about him, how they treated him. I just couldn't see my friend treated like that. It was sort of a mutual decision. Then they named all these people I should work with -- this guy who worked with the Beatles, Daniel Lanois -- but did nothing to make it happen. I finally went to Craig [Street], 'cause I love his stuff, and they didn't say no. They gave us, like, a dollar to make the record. I'm really happy with it, though -- and David actually did produce a lot of the vocals."
What ultimately makes Bitterradical is that it's not trying to be. Not in superficial terms. In a culture gone mad for the faux rebellion and adolescent thrills of all things hardcore, it dares to be vulnerable, tender. But that's also part of what makes it another entry in the Ndeg√©ocello diary of career struggles. There are no "singles" in the way they've come to be defined -- hook-laden, singsong choruses and junior high poetry for verses. The understated arrangements guide attention to the lyrics and the emotion in Ndeg√©ocello's voice -- frayed and soothing, with a warm huskiness that slides from bruised to lustful with unnerving ease. It's exactly what a heartbreak album should be: simple. I ask what the company's reaction was when she turned it in.
"Well, I only made this record because I was contractually obligated," she admits. "And when I turned it in, I was literally told by the general manager, 'You're not going to sell a lot of records. If you really want to help us, you'll do a remix -- or maybe you could go write a song with a bigger name.' That was their vision. They were like, it's a beautiful record, but it's not gonna sell. I'm at a label where they obviously let me do what I do, but I just don't think they have any respect for what I do. You know, I had a really eye-opening conversation with Joan Osborne, who I think is so talented. I was telling her I handed in my record and they didn't like it, and she was like, 'I handed in my record and they told me to take it back.' I mean, I don't think anybody who works at any record company actually likes music anymore."
Ndeg√©ocello is merely echoing the words of countless musicians who have gone before her and countless who will come after her. But I'm still struck by the note of bafflement beneath her frustration. Is she really surprised at the way she's been handled?