Four 21st-Century Ladies of the Canyon Attempt To Snatch Queen Norah’s Crown
Norah Jones has spent the summer stepping out in New York with her punk band El Madmo and her country-rock combo the Sloppy Joannes, sparking speculation that the adult-contempo queen is tiring of the easy-listening fare that made her a household name four years ago, the kind of thing that gives record execs night sweats. Not that it would matter much. So many earnest female singer-songwriters have sprung up in Jones’ commercial wake that devout listeners won’t want for her jazz-folk stylings for long if Jones finally indulges her long-suppressed desire to make a ska record.
At the moment, English folk-soul lady Corinne Bailey Rae heads up the pack of Jones’ successors. Her self-titled debut is a certified hit in Europe, where it’s sold over a million copies. Bailey Rae has her own inclinations toward punk and hard rock; as a high school kid in the late ’90s she fronted a grunge band called Helen. But you certainly can’t hear any of the teen spirit that presumably used to drive her on Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol), a supremely mellow fusion of India.Arie’s hippy-dippy R&B and Zero 7’s electronic mood music.
In the U.K., Bailey Rae’s earned additional comparisons to Erykah Badu, thanks no doubt to her whole-wheat earth mother steez, not to mention the album’s elevated level of Fender Rhodes keyboard. But where Badu slyly articulates the suppressed rage of a put-upon black woman, Bailey Rae offers all the fiery vitriol of pine furniture. As on Jones’ Come Away With Me, the desperation suggested by titles like "Breathless" and "Trouble Sleeping" is never really realized in the music.
Still, Bailey Rae makes beautiful music--a twinkly keyboards and shivery strings over a head-nodding beat here, a gorgeous acoustic-guitar arpeggio there, and melodies you’ll be humming after hearing them once. And she possesses a terrific voice, provided you can forgive the lack of evident feeling. Few English people as capably fake a sexy Southern soul accent.
Or few American people, for that matter. New Jersey girl Toby Lightman certainly goes for it on her second album, Bird on a Wire (Lava), which features a lot of tunes where Lightman tries to slyly articulate the suppressed irritation of the put-upon white woman. Lightman’s problem is the opposite of Bailey Rae’s--she shoots so hard for emotional intensity that she ends up tipping into overextended American Idol territory, which seriously depletes the potential sexiness in her husky, burnished-leather vocals.
That said, Bird on a Wire, like Corinne Bailey Rae, is exceedingly well put together. As he did on I Am Shelby Lynne and Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club, producer Bill Bottrell positions Lightman’s voice at the creamy center of a sweet roots-soul confection. In opener "Don’t Wake Me" she rides a sleazy twang-guitar groove tricked out with taut disco strings, while the shuffling beat in "Better" provides a funky touch of hip-hop grit.
There’s no grit at all on the third album by San Francisco-based Vienna Teng, which is no surprise. Before she committed herself to music full-time, Teng designed computer software in Silicon Valley, leaving her with a taste for clean-lined precision you can hear throughout Dreaming Through the Noise (Zoe). Teng writes carefully calibrated art-folk pieces saturated with echoes of the classical music created centuries ago in the city she’s named after. In the waltz-timed "Now Three" she murmurs gently about "dreams of rain in sheets" while a minor-key piano trill tangles politely with stuffy strings, and "1BR/1BA" features perhaps the least funky fiddle you’ve ever heard.
Indeed, as her number-crunching background suggests, Teng’s more of a thinker than a feeler. Like her fellow Californian Mia Doi Todd, she writes with a belletristic flair for language that doesn’t always lead to an emotional payoff. "She’s holding a secret she’ll never tell, because the myth is not supposed to retire," she sings in "Love Turns 40." "We’d rather it lit itself on fire or overdosed in a four-star hotel."
But Teng has a great partner in producer Larry Klein, an industry vet who used to work with and be married to Joni Mitchell, which says something about his ability to understand brainy art-folk women. On Dreaming, Klein takes Teng’s cerebral sensibility seriously without marooning her in some Tori Amos no-fun zone. This is sober stuff, but it’s quite lovely, too.
New York-based guitar whiz Kaki King shares Teng’s serious streak. The last song on . . . Until We Felt Red (Velour), King’s third album, is called "Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers," which would sound like the title of an upcoming Owen Wilson movie if it weren’t preceded by "These Are the Armies of the Tyrannized." King’s first two discs were heady instrumental affairs, defined by her uniquely fleet-fingered pick-and-thump playing. Whether or not it’s an acknowledgment of the flourishing "next Norah" market, Felt Red prominently features King’s vocals for the first time in her career.
She’s still a long way from Toby Lightman’s ululatin’ turf, though. Recorded in collaboration with John McEntire of Tortoise, the album proudly privileges texture over melody, King’s softly crooned vocals functioning more as a secondary voice behind her impressively layered guitar. That’s an anomaly within King’s new commercial context, where the advancement of an easily identifiable personality outweighs the pleasures of music-qua-music. Time will tell if Jones’ audience will embrace King’s shift. If not, expect King to spend the fall stepping out in New York with her very own, and very sophisticated, country-rock combo.
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