[26 June 2006]
At the recent Save the Rhinos concert at New York’s Central Park Summerstage, Common took the stage and ripped through a fistful of classics as the concert’s headliner. Common, who had been snubbed at the Grammys despite his four nominations, took the opportunity between songs to address his audience. “They tried to India.Arie me,” he exclaimed with his air of snarkiness, referring to the similar circumstance with the R&B singer, who was dealt a whopping seven nominations for her debut Acoustic Soul. The crowd shouted in agreement while Common, who continued with his set, remained seemingly unfazed by the prospect of music’s highest honor being dangled in front of him, and then simply snatched away.
While Arie merely became a verb to describe the cruel and uncomfortably usual actions of the Recording Academy, she set an example for musicians like Common who are faced with similar adversity: when handed the charms of popularity, musicians must keep their feet on the ground and persevere with their careers. Arie valiantly bounced back from her entrancing 2001 debut by bearing through the embarrassment of her loss and dropping Voyage to India the following year. The former album, which perfectly blended the elements of the new-wave neo-soul movement, set a path for the latter, which featured a maturity that came with the seasoning of disappointment. Arie had fully grown into her skin, and learned how to fully enhance the correlation between her introspective lyrics and smooth musicality.
But with her new release, Testimony: Vol. 1, Life and Relationship, Arie has taken her acoustic licks to a rather saccharine level, with a creamy sound that channels the blandness of easy listening. The album is filled with pulpy R&B wops, all of which, as the title suggests, are plump with words that sound ripped from her diary and set to music. The element that carries these tunes rests in her voice, which is glazed with the sultry honey that her immaculate idol Stevie Wonder taught her to refine through her childhood speakers. While her voice injects the songs with the serum to alleviate the bland, her musicality has managed to dip into a neutered space, with derivative chord progressions and cheesy instrumental inclinations. Although this musical backdrop may overburden the listener with unwarranted glitz, Arie’s vocal stylistics and introspective subject matter lift the album from a teeming disappointment to a sharp musical confection that asks to be taken at face value.
As she has done with her previous albums, Arie ties the record together with a musical theme, with several interludes plucking the same musical chord. While her barren and guitar-driven theme on Acoustic Soul made breathing room for her voice and lyrics to gleam, Arie’s enhanced finger-plucking interludes on Voyage to India strung the album together by bleeding into the tracks that followed them. Diverging from her nylon strings, Arie wraps Testimony in a piano tromp that faintly echoes the progression of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, but with the glorious addition of her fluttering mocha voice. The interludes, as they have done on her previous records, separate the clumps of tracks that have the same subject matter, allowing the songs to fully coalesce by the end of the album’s play.
Arie knows album structure, having mastered it by this point in her career. Her main issue to resolve is content; many of her songs can be derivative easy listening, sacrificing her intelligence and talent for the sake of schmooze. The perfect case-in-point track is “Summer”, featuring the country musings of Rascal Flatts and Victor Wooten. Arie rides the groove mercilessly, but the conflict lies in the languid ambient drums and wispy guitar trills, causing the track to embrace corniness. Another track that suffers from this setback is “Better People”, a wicka-wah smile-a-thon that sounds excessively upbeat, as if she does not realize how transparent she can make herself out to be.
But while Arie doesn’t know when she slops on the corn, she supports the album with gorgeous musical moments in nearly every song. On “There’s Hope”, a bouncy and wonderfully optimistic tune, Arie builds the track around a musical citation from her debut single, “Video”, crooning “The India.Arie” over a heart-warming violin arrangement. The string sections on the album can at times be a bit overburdening, but Arie knows where to appropriately use them, like on the end of the Savannah-chastising “India’Song”. The song rolls out with a wobbly interpolation of the track’s melody, like a puppeteer playing the strings of the heart.
The subject matter of the album, like the musicality, can seem a bit naïve and mushy, but Arie’s societal scrutinizing pays off in places. The beginning of the album features Arie peppering her tracks with anecdotes from her love life, which plays like a brazen tragedy that she inevitably rises above. On the pseudo-dusky track “These Eyes”, Arie describes the hardships of having to walk away from love, but overcomes this obstacle as she entails on the “Good Morning”, singing “Good morning optimism, good morning to my faith / Good morning to the beginning of a brand new day.” The song, which is glaringly plucked from her personal life, even features the scribbling of a pencil at the beginning of the track, as if we were sitting in on a diary entry.
By the end of the album, the listener will surely be overwhelmed by Arie’s earnestness, both musically and personally, but like her previous albums, Testimony is for those who seek a motivational guide for living a conflict-free life. In her mind, life is about people expressing comradery for one another and resolving petty conflicts, resulting in inevitable self-love. But while living this type of blissful life can be self-affirming, idealizing it can be a bit unreasonable, and like the tracks on Testimony, expressing these thoughts musically can sometimes come across in too much of a sterilized way.