Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Out In The Weather

Album Review
Meshell Ndegeocello - Weather
Genre: Neo-Soul

I had never heard of Meshell Ndegeocello before getting this album. I found her when I did a Google search for female bass players. Having just come off my review of Kira Small's album, I was eager to find another female performer. Specifically, I wanted to check out a female bassist.
My search showed that she has recorded many albums and performed with many bands and musicians during a career that spans more than twenty years. She has received ten Grammy nominations. Okay. I found my bass player!

Since I was new to her music, I made the decision to go in without digging in to all her background information. I shut down the search pages and went to iTunes to get her most recent album, called "Weather." I didn't preview the songs - I just bought it. I was going to have to have that first clean moment.

Once the first round of listening was complete, I went did all the regular research things. I looked at the YouTube videos, read the info from her site, and let my experience broaden. I read the lyrics and learned a bit about their meanings and driving forces

It was at that point when I wondered if I was even qualified to review her work. Me, the uninformed. She is a thousand times bigger than I thought she was. Again, it's my lack of involvement in the music being made by women that needs to be upgraded.

I do this review to educate myself, and I am now among her listeners, so...

Her playing is very inventive; it's not so much "experimental", but more "exploratory". Her vision of the bass is respectful of its purpose in a song and yet she knows exactly how to kick it off balance with syncopation and blended partnerships with the other instruments. She can get jazzy, bluesy, funky, or just rock the beats with equal skill. She's a thunder-maker of extraordinary skill.

The vocal harmonies with her guest background singer, Benji Hughes, are impeccable. I always pay special attention when people sing together - there must be a connection and a chemistry or the songs won't work. These two have it down pat! The other musicians on the album are Chris Bruce on guitar, Keefus Ciancia on keyboards, Deantoni Parks on drums, Gabe Noel on the cello and Jay Bellerose in a guest spot on the drums. It's a well-synched combo. Love the cello. Nothing sounds as good as a cello and a bass guitar talking to each other. They're like cousins who don't exactly speak the same language, but are absolutely able to understand each other.

People don't usually make records when they are 100% at peace with everything. They want to tell their stories when they are in transition. When things are changing. Weather is just that, a turning point for Ndegeocello. She tells the story of a changing world, changing relationships, and trying to re-define her place in it all. When things go astray, she will try to find safe places, or she will abandon them and throw caution to the wind. You know the old saying, "If you want see the weather change, just wait five minutes"? It applies here, for sure.

From the musical standpoint, the songs go back and forth between gentle ballads to aggressive ground-pounders that keep reminding you that the person at the helm of this boat tossing on the waves is a bass player. She sings her stories, but she also rumbles them through her instrument.

The songs:

01 - Weather: Ndegeocello and Benji Hughes sing of the tribulations of human emotion. The beat is easy and carefree, a contrast to the contemplative nature of the words. The bass is a gentle presence somewhere underneath it all.

02 - Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear: This is a disquieting and troubled song, full of rhythmic starts and stops. The bass and cello work together in ways I've never heard before. One of my faves on the album.

03 - Feeling for The Wall: A personal song. Looking for a safe place to fall when things go wrong. Again, you can feel the bass, but it's buried deeply within the empty spaces.

04 - Chance: This is the first song on the album that really started to remind me of Roger Waters, another artist who tells his stories both through voice and bass. As with Waters, Ndegeocello writes complicated, personal lyrics. Whether they be about politics, the world or the human heart, the words always come first. Then the artist sets those words to infectious, uplifting beats that contrast the seriousness of the message, and yet fit so well to its purpose.

Ever find yourself dancing around the room or driving in a car - singing "We don't need no education! We don't need no thought control!" Such confrontational lyrics, such great dance beats! A rallying cry for change...change that might never come because we're just so happy to sing and dance! It's a pure dichotomy of art.

Well, Ndegeocello's song "Chance" is the same kind of thing. You're dancing, you're singing, you're afraid of taking the chances. But you still have to.

05 - Oysters: A keyboard, a singer, and the night sky. Introspection at its finest. The voice is split in two and feeds through both sides of your headphones. Each side is slightly out of sync with the other...right until the very end, when they come together as one. She doesn't just sing the song, she feeds it into your head.

06 - Rapid Fire: Top of the heap. My fave song on the album! Primal. Drums and bass. Some of the best bass I've ever heard! Ndegeocello sings in a lower register than her previous songs. This one sort of hits me in the same place as "The Ghost Song" by The Doors.

07 - Chelsea Hotel (Leonard Cohen cover): Since I love Leonard Cohen, I enjoy hearing other people's takes on his stuff. It's a tribute to Janis Joplin. From Ndegeocello's version, I wonder if she's also paying tribute to a woman, or putting herself in the shoes of the muse.

08 - Dirty World: Here we go again with the rhythmic monster! A funky bass grinder. A bassist's song.

09 - A Bitter Mule: Sorry to say that I really didn't get into this one as much as the others. It's a slow, waltzing ballad, but maybe a little too slow. I hear a bit of Angelo Badalamenti/Julee Cruise here. Deliberately overly moody. Badalamenti and Cruise did the music for all the "Twin Peaks" shows and the movie, "Fire: Walk With Me." Ever hear Cruise's song "Into The Night"? Slow and hypnotic, but it never quite hits my sombre bone in just the right place (and I love a good downtrodden song). After hearing Rapid Fire, A Bitter Mule is a little too far in the other direction. But I do see its value as a part of this whole album package.

10 - Crazy and Wild: Ahh, back to the bass and rhythms. Crazy good keyboard. And Benji Hughes again, singing underneath Ndegeocello's fair voice . This is what slow and deliberate should sound like. I love it.

11 - Petite Mort: Hey, I don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. This is a song of carnal relations. La Petit Mort is French for "Little Death"...or in more urban terms, a climax. The song is exactly that. 'Nuff said. Just have a listen...maybe in the bedroom. The bass is gonna take you there anyway, so...

12 - Dead End: Great gungy bass and guitar. The picked guitar and the staggered lyrics remind me of Lindsey Buckingham's song "Go Insane" from his album of the same name. I like the way the music here fits the name of the song. Frustration. Just like "Go Insane" it describes a process of being out of control. And, of course, the bass is the best!

13 - Don't Take My Kindness for Weakness: The original was from "Soul Children", a STAX group from the 60s - 70s. Ndegeocello strips it bare, slows it down and makes it her own. Instead of the haughty "don't-mess-with-me" attitude of the original, this one is more internal. The Soul Children told a man to back off - in no uncertain terms. Ndegeocello seems more to be asking. She's really hoping he won't take advantage of her heart while she's down. Much more vulnerable.

I am very glad I found this artist and this collection of songs. Weather is both a bassist's and a story teller's album. Different to an instrumental bass record, where the story is told by the bass. Everything is so gorgeous here. A true aural feast from the bottom on up. Listening to this one made me think more deeply about her story because (as I said before) there's that hint of the Waters style, and I am all over that kind of presentation. Such intense, personal journeys played out against infectious rhythms and drives.

If you already know her music, getting this latest album will only further your understanding of her story. If you're like me and are starting from brand new, it'll be an inspiration to go back into her world and ask more questions.


© 2012 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

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