Some Othaness for U
Little Girl Lost Blues
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What have we here? Three albums in the neo-soul, new classic soul style-three women singers—no great surprise surely? After the success of Hill, Badu, Stone and Scott the record companies are out trawling around for bandwagon-jumpers to milk the market—yes? Well, no, actually. Look at the labels. Never heard of them? Me neither. Independents—formed specifically for the purposes of releasing these records. Independent records for and from three independent women—and three of the best slices of soulful music you have heard for a long time.
Links to their better known contemporaries are plentiful—Afrocentric, New Age visual and lyrical motifs abound, the same laid-back rhythmic patterns and the same nods towards jazz and/or classic ‘70s soul can be identified—but there is a distinctiveness about each project (and a distinct classiness ) that makes all three worthy of discussion in the same light as their more famous sisters.
The N’Dambi album was the first to surface—available from the artist’s website (as with the Ledisi). N’Dambi is one of Erykah Badu’s backing singers but is in many ways easier on the ear than her more famous employer. The mannered style is missing, thankfully, but the inventiveness and the intelligence is not. Apart from some weak and unnecessary rap on one of the early tracks there is a consistency of quality and a mellow, but never complacent groove, on show that make this an album you can stick on and let flow over you without reaching for the remote every two tracks. From jazzy delights such as “See You In My Dreams” and “Broke My Heart” to moody head-nodders such as “Lonely Woman” and “Soul From the Abyss” the pleasing mix of past and present ensures that this album stands up to repeated listening. An extra joy is that, unlike with so many new-soul efforts, one is not constantly commenting—“That is nice but it sounds just like…(insert ‘70s name)”. N’Dambi is her own talented self.
N’Dambi is from Texas—the drawl is used to advantage at times, but not overdone. From San Francisco heralds the remarkable Ledisi and 2000’s most interesting new name. Not quite new, for those of us who worship at the shrine of Naked Music records (for whom she has provided a couple of sublime vocal tracks), but new enough to be pencilled as one to watch in the near future. For now, we can listen and revel in a star in the making.
Less smooth than the N’Dambi set and less consistent perhaps, although its highs are higher and the lows are few, Soulsinger is lyrically ambitious, musically rich and designed to be used as a reply to anyone who says there are no soulful singers and no meaningful songs anymore. Songs about child abuse (“Poppa Used To Love Me”) and wife-battering (“Coffee”) give the album strong feminist credentials and are as disturbing as they need to be to avoid awkwardness (although the theatricality of the performance of lyrics of great power seems unfortunate—there was no need.)
The mix of jazz and soul values is more diverse than on the N’Dambi. From the funky opening track to the late night “Good Lovin” the musicianship (led by songwriting partner and keyboardist Sun) is outstanding. “Take Time”, “Stop Livin In Your Head” and “I Wantcha Babe” already sound like standards and this album will undoubtedly feature on many people’s classic album lists in the not too distant future.
With Karen Bernod we cross to New York but the mix is similar—a strong political consciousness, some delicious love songs and the same jazz overtones. Those who associate feminism with crude man-hating should try the heartfelt opener “Endangered Species” ( young black men) and then settle in to the chilled vibe of “On The DL” or “Reminiscin on Your Kissin”. Bernod’s “Pray” goes head to head with Ledisi’s “My Prayer”—two modern civil rights anthems—and I think Bernod actually shades it. Briefer and less immediately arresting than the other two albums, I think Some Othaness stands alongside them , not least because Bernod’s voice has a warmth of tone and a range that, perhaps, surpasses the high standards set by her sister vocalists.
Taken together these albums are an important addition to the remarkable creative output of African-American women in the post-Alice Walker womanist world. The fact that they have all ignored major labels and put out the material themselves has allowed a lyrical and stylistic (plus, one assumes, an economic) independence—whatever it also says about the shortcomings of the mainstream record industry. More importantly, one need not just approve, one can genuinely enjoy three great singers showcasing their own exceptional material.