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 shed 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 arent 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 theres 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 Ndegeocellos 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 collections reggae/dub-infused grooves were highly seductive, the singer-songwriters 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 wasnt 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. Meshells first three albums, Plantation Lullabies (1993), Peace Beyond Passion (1996) and especially the flawless Bitter (1999), are bibles of modern soul music. Theyre 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 years 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 werent 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; its the vice versa that makes her work so powerful, so beautiful.
Comfort Woman is, in many ways, Meshells 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 Meshells countless past slow-jam classics. Liliquoi Moon (Lisa Bonets 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 Ndegeocellos parents relationship and the way it shaped and continues to shape her. Its 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.) Shes also currently on two excellent new homage efforts, Bird Up: The Charlie Parker Remix Project, and Just Because Im 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, its a little more surprising, and therefore in some ways more fulfilling, to hear her sultry, funky take on Partons Two Doors Down. While most of the other performers (Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Sinead OConnor, Norah Jones) offer reverent, moving if conventional interpretations of some of Partons 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 shes dropped this year appears on Basement Jaxxs Kish Kash. She has two tracks the dreamy, atmospheric closing number, Feels Like Home, and the kitchen-sink dance track, Right Heres the Spot. On the latter, shes playful and sexy, and flows so effortlessly over the frenetic track that it makes you wish shed 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 worlds 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
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might be its lack of hipster self-consciousness about its range and palette.
The tongue-in-cheek Plug It In has NSyncs dark-haired beauty JC Chasez channeling Justin Timberlake channeling Michael Jackson over a raucous sound collage while panting about his curiosity; its the years de facto homo anthem. If I Ever Recover, lush and brooding, is the best Pet Shop Boys song that PSB never recorded. The discs best track, though, is the opening Good Luck, which features Riversides 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. Its 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 isnt just the best track on Kish Kash, its one of the years best.
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO | Comfort Woman | (Maverick)
BASEMENT JAXX | Kish Kash | (Astralwerks/EMD)