Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds, Vol. 2
Since exploding onto the scene with her debut record Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 nearly five years ago -- which incidentally, might have been the best contemporary Soul release prior to this one -- Ms. Scott's taken a well-deserved break from the blinding lights and sirens of popular success in favor of whiling away the days reading and singing and eating good food, preparing a sort of emotional compost in which to plant the seeds of her next work.
And oh, what beautiful flowers! While still using the electronic beat-making that is by now an accepted part of the genre, Beautifully Human... nonetheless has the same vibrational quality that characterizes the best of Al Green and Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. (When someone's telling you the truth -- as opposed to merely something you want to hear -- there is an undeniable resonance to it, even if you don't necessarily agree with what's being said.)
Such self-consciousness -- or, better yet, self-awareness -- usually manifests itself through mantras, spoken, sung or otherwise depicted. True, Scott's music does contain lots of "can-do" rhetoric -- she can even "stain and polyurethane," as she sings in "The Fact Is (I Need You)" -- that could be misconstrued by some as cocky artifice. However, Scott doesn't make these proclamations saying she can do any of these things better than you -- knuckle-headed separatist boasting being the Achilles heel of most current Soul -- but that she can, in fact, do them, and furthermore can do anything she damn well wants to, thankyouverymuch.
Which, it seems, includes releasing a contemporary soul record that espouses positivity over posturing, sensuality over sexuality, and emotional heft over erotic huff and puff. Beautifully human, in other words.
Rating: 1/2--Timothy C. Davis
Tracker's fantastic Polk (2002) was a late-night ride through desert badlands suggesting a haphazard, mysterious road trip -- and an unforgettable one at that. A big part of the fun was Tracker main-man John Askew's instrumental breaks, brushstrokes of sound that helped make the record a great listen, front-to-back.
So when the all-but-one-song instrumental Blankets arrived, the only surprise was what Askew chose to put his music to -- the wintery, Wisconsin-based Craig Thompson coming-of-age graphic novel, Blankets. But it turns out that Askew's knack for scenic swaths of sound is multi-climactic, relying more on keys and synth loops this time than pedal steel and yearning vocals, while maintaining its slightly creepy edge. (The protagonist's parents are rigid Christian fundamentalists -- no fun at all.) Does it help to have read the book, considered a graphic classic? Probably, but it's by no means necessary to enjoy Askew & Friends' skilled soundscapes. If you're a fan of instrumental outfits ranging from Friends of Dean Martinez to Six Parts Seven, this is another can't-miss Tracker release, best heard straight through. The almost gratuitous final track, with vocals, only serves as a reminder that Askew's even better when he mixes up the mash.
Rating: --John Schacht
Not Going Anywhere
No doubt still firing up their Coronas with $100 bills -- a little Norah Jones blow-back -- and raiding the bottomless Blue Note vaults, the powers-that-be at Capitol Records didn't get there by being stupid. If they could actually feed their massive jazz habits by peddling non-jazz fare like the mega-platinum Ms. Jones, why not make a habit of that, too?
So, mes amis, say bonjour to Keren Ann Zeidel, French chanteuse and potential cash infusion for Metro Blue, sister label to Blue Note. Ms. Zeidel may actually be of Dutch-Israeli-Japanese-Russian descent, but arrives via Paris in every sense; her record recalls nothing so much as a springtime stroll along the Seine.
Located somewhere at the vocal junction of Chan Marshall, Nico and that wispy lass from the Innocence Mission, Keren Ann is at her best when the music complements her charmingly frail vocals -- "Spanish Song Bird," "End of May," and "By the Cathedral" being the best examples. The only real weak point is unfortunately the record's centerpiece: the Suzanne Vega-ish "Sailor & Widow." That song, along with her two previous all-French full lengths and now her first English-speaking record, suggests Ms. Zeidel is best off reveling in her French-ness, regardless what language she chooses to do so in.
Rating: --John Schacht