Of all the highly anticipated albums that hit in the past few weeks, the one I was most excited about was the new Meshell Ndegeocello album, the heavy mouthful "The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams". (Decca) As regular readers may know, Meshell is one of my great musical heroes- I was introduced to her music by her former keyboardist Michael Cain, and became a rabid fan. She is, I think, the funkiest woman alive, and her live gigs rank as some of the best live music I've seen in any genre.
Meshell seems to relish how difficult she is to categorize- she followed up her first two funk/soul albums with "Bitter", a primarily acoustic song-based effort. After the star-laden "Cookie" and reggae-drenched "Comfort Woman" (probably her most consistent effort) she put together "her jazz album", Dance of the Infidels, where she didn't sing and barely played. The buzz preceding "World" said it would be more "Afro-punk", whatever that means.
It is punkier- "Sloganeer" and "Article 3", with their hard one-note lines and edgy guitars, would've been right at home at CB's, and the guitar and bass tones are often heavily distorted and grungy. But what about the screaming, anthemic Pat Metheny solo (he should have a patent on this type of solo at this point), or the Prince-ish digitized voice of god on "Elliptical", or Robert Glaspar's appearance? Or the lovely "Shirk", a bleak guitar ballad seemingly redeemed by Malian singer...? To try to buttonhole this album is to sell your listening short.
Partially due to that almost defiant polyglot, the album is a challenging listen, part of the reason I'm so slow in reviewing it. The album's opening does the casual listener no favors either- it is a speech by Shiek talking about an Islamic (or Islamist? I couldn't quite make it out in this interview/performance on WNYC) view of apocalyptic signs, and many of the catchier tunes either begin or end with very abstract, heavily reverbed instrumentals. (see Oliver Lake's cameo on "Lovely Lovely", my favorite tune on the record) And I admit I often find myself fast-forwarding through the spoken testimony before "Solomon". And outside of two tunes "Soul Spaceship" and "Michelle Johnson", there is a lot less of the straight-up funk she is often equated with. And the lyrics probe questions of spirituality and sensuality, politics, religion and sex more overtly that anything prior. (didn't think that possible) But the lyrics are, to my ears, more oblique than in the past (no "Dead N*&%a Blvd" here
BUT, get over it- this is Meshell's most challenging and interesting album yet. It's some of her best singing, and the more puzzling music, with repeated listens, is tremendously rewarding. There is a short, mind-blowing interlude on "Evolution", maybe eight bars which never return, which I'll spend hours figuring out. Seemingly, just because. There are nuggets like that all over the album. The playing is brilliant top to bottom. Go check it.
UPDATE: NY Times reviews Meshell's NYC hit on Saturday here.
Other random notes- the new Radiohead, "In Rainbows", is another album I didn't want to make a quick judgement on. I agree wholeheartedly with Darcy- the sound suffers for the bitrate compression, so I want to hear it on a real CD. But I love, love the first tune. Even if the rest was awful (which it isn't) that is worth the pay-what-you-will.
- I've been reluctant to buy "River", Herbie's Joni tribute, based on what I've heard on the radio and the web. Seems to lack fire. Anyone have any advice here?
- Joni's "Shine" I will buy, even if it sucks. I got one tune, "Night of the Iguana", free from Starbucks, and it's pretty good, similar sonically to "Turbulent Indigo", Joni's now near contralto sounds go, but the tune is not so memorable.