Photo by Mark Seliger
One of the luxuries afforded the late film critic Pauline Kael in her 1970s gig at The New Yorker was that of revisiting films she’d already written about — either elevating them or knocking them down a notch from earlier assessments. With the nonstop barrage of product coming out of Hollywood nowadays, and the fact that movies (particularly those that aren’t huge box-office hits right out of the gate) are ushered in and out of theaters with lightning speed, that luxury is a relic of a bygone era. Which is unfortunate, because the real power of film is not gauged overnight or even in a few days, but over a stretch of time when images, dialogue and performances are allowed to sink in and nag you, haunt you or shift something deep within you. (Of course, most of what fills contemporary movie screens is forgotten even as you watch it, so there’s no need for any assessment period.) Music is perhaps even more demanding of time and space to be fully appreciated.
When writing a capsule review of Meshell Ndegeocello’s new CD, Comfort Woman, for a recent issue of Rolling Stone, after having been allowed only a few days with it, I said that while the collection’s reggae/dub-infused grooves were highly seductive, the singer-songwriter’s words were a familiar
rehashing of past lyrics. The review was just a little more than lukewarm. The same night that I completed the final edit for the blurb, I grabbed my headphones, put the CD in the player and fell across my bed. I wasn’t even halfway through before I had to turn it off. Fuck me. It was pretty remarkable. Not great, but within spitting distance of greatness. Something had shifted. I went back and listened to the whole disc, many times, and for days on end. Damn.
Comfort Woman is stellar work; on it, Meshell once again laps her peers, retooling a blueprint that many photocopied but few have truly built on or learned from. (Forget, for a moment, that neo-soul was/is a contrived marketing coinage and a bullshit movement; most of what was deemed neo-soul was a pale imitation of what Meshell had been doing before the term even existed.)
Part of the initial problem was that I approached Comfort less as a critic than as a salty fan. Meshell’s first three albums, Plantation Lullabies (1993), Peace Beyond Passion (1996) and especially the flawless Bitter (1999), are bibles of modern soul music. They’re incendiary and vulnerable, politically charged and emotionally bare, all at once. They not only organically traverse the spectrum of black music (jazz, rap, rock, go-go, R&B, funk), they soar to a place where genre is unmappable and irrelevant. But her fourth album, last year’s Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, was Meshell for dummies. Months of listening to it, pausing from it, coming at it from different angles, only reinforced that take. If someone else had made the album, it would have been a good but derivative effort. As it was, Cookie came off as Meshell doing a somewhat forced performance of Meshell. The politics and observations weren’t just characteristically blunt, they were obvious, tailor-made for a culture that needs its political statements clunky and ringed in neon. While it was great to hear samples of radical black artists and activists like Angela Davis (“I am a communist . . .”), Countee Cullen and June Jordan on the disc, the fact is, those acclaimed figures are lifted from the Alterna-Negro-Boho-Cool Tips Sheet. It was as though Meshell were working from the outside in, instead of vice versa; it’s the vice versa that makes her work so powerful, so beautiful.
Comfort Woman is, in many ways, Meshell’s true anthropological mix-tape. The opening track, “Love Song #1,” begins by referencing “Call Me,” from Lullabies. But then, within the deep, dark folds of a dubby groove, it becomes a hypnotic seduction. Her throaty, whispery singing — hoarse with desire — flames against the sway of the music, and the track instantly takes its place alongside Meshell’s countless past slow-jam classics. “Liliquoi Moon” (Lisa Bonet’s name for the past several years) originally showed up early this year on the Biker Boyz soundtrack (in which the actress starred) and examines yet again the clashing, painful dynamic of Ndegeocello’s parents’ relationship and the way it shaped and continues to shape her. It’s even more languorous here. The heightened spiritual quest and questioning at the heart of Peace Beyond Passion resurfaces in “Fellowship,” a tune that succinctly captures the religious, cultural and economic forces that both led up to 9/11 and now make the fallout such a moral and political quagmire. Comfort drifts toward monotony at the end of its brief span (40 minutes), but it unquestionably helps if, before you sit down to listen, you take the advice Meshell offers in the song “Come Smoke My Herb.”
The Meshell completist has an almost full-time job keeping up with her output — soundtracks, tribute albums, cameos on other artists’ CDs. (She has a jazz album dropping early next year on Verve, which will feature Cassandra Wilson, Oran Coltrane, Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman, among others.) She’s also currently on two excellent new homage efforts, Bird Up: The Charlie Parker Remix Project, and Just Because I’m a Woman, a heavy-hitting all-female tribute to Dolly Parton. The former comes as no surprise. The woman is one of the premier musicians in America, and her inclusion on a Bird tribute makes perfect sense. Still, it’s a little more surprising, and therefore in some ways more fulfilling, to hear her sultry, funky take on Parton’s “Two Doors Down.” While most of the other performers (Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Sinead O’Connor, Norah Jones) offer reverent, moving if conventional interpretations of some of Parton’s most heart-rending compositions, Meshell so completely reimagines the song that it fits snugly in her own repertoire.
For all the well-earned praise Meshell has received for her own album and the aforementioned cameos, the most
satisfying recorded work she’s dropped this year appears on Basement Jaxx’s Kish Kash. She has two tracks — the dreamy, atmospheric closing number, “Feels Like Home,” and the kitchen-sink dance track, “Right Here’s the Spot.” On the latter, she’s playful and sexy, and flows so effortlessly over the frenetic track that it makes you wish she’d spend more time on the high-tempo end of things. The rest of the album shows the British duo focusing more on actual songs than they have in the past, while
simultaneously rifling through their own endless influences. (Kish Kash might be the music world’s version of Kill Bill, with its
wall-to-wall references and citations of other genres and tunes. Unlike the movie, however, the CD never drags.) Techno, punk, acid-house, hip-hop, Northern soul and new wave are all woven together in a collection whose most remarkable attribute
might be its lack of hipster self-consciousness about its range and palette.
The tongue-in-cheek “Plug It In” has ’NSync’s dark-haired beauty JC Chasez channeling Justin Timberlake channeling Michael Jackson over a raucous sound collage while panting about his “curiosity”; it’s the year’s de facto homo anthem. “If I Ever Recover,” lush and brooding, is the best Pet Shop Boys song that PSB never recorded. The disc’s best track, though, is the opening “Good Luck,” which features Riverside’s Lisa Kekaula, of the BellRays, in a ferocious performance of what can only be termed ’60s girl-group gone punk. Kekaula has an astonishing voice — powerful, gritty and emotive. It’s a potent reminder that rock & roll and soul music are not polar opposites, that they spring from the same source. Thanks to her no-holds-barred vocals, “Good Luck” isn’t just the best track on Kish Kash, it’s one of the year’s best.
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO | Comfort Woman | (Maverick)
BASEMENT JAXX | Kish Kash | (Astralwerks/EMD)