Victor Wooten’s pair of new albums, the vocal-oriented Words and Tones, and the mostly instrumental Sword and Stone, are an interesting case study for what happens when a musician who is known mostly for his musicianship tries his hand at songwriting. Wooten has been a world class bass player for years as a founding member of the Flecktones and elsewhere. Words and Tones features a stable of excellent female vocalists and impeccable musicianship from Wooten and his band members. However, the album’s intriguing mix of R&B, jazz, funk and rock often ends up being undermined by the ridiculous cheesiness of the lyrics. Wooten seems overly concerned with grade-school level wordplay (“to be funky, fun is the key”) throughout the album, and even the best vocalist would have trouble selling lines such as “To evolve you must have love / It’s right there in the word.” This happens again and again, from the pleasant Caribbean feel of “Love is My Favorite Word” to the late-night R&B of “When U Grow Up”. No matter how effective the groove of the song or the skill of the singer is, the awful lyrics are difficult to get past.
This, naturally, would seem to indicate that Sword and Stone is the better album, and it is, at least marginally. Wooten wisely avoided replicating every track from the vocal album here, so there are about five jams that are unique to the instrumental album. Some of these tracks really pay off, like the acoustic “H.O.P.E.” or the album-ending “Keep It Low”, which features some truly great bass grooves as well as some jamming from Wooten and the band. The problem with the instrumental versions of the Words and Tones songs, though, is that by transferring the vocal melodies largely to guitars and saxophones, Wooten often ends up trading one form of musical cheese for another. Instead of strong vocal performances of terrible lyrics, Sword and Stone contains instrumental versions of songs that mix R&B, jazz, funk and rock. This particular mixture translates most often into music that is indistinguishable from smooth jazz. Yes, on Sword and Stone Wooten (hopefully) inadvertently made his decent songs with cheesy lyrics into elevator music. So while it’s not as cringe-inducing as Words and Tones, the tracks on the instrumental album often just fade into the background as if one was waiting at the dentist’s office. The end result is that both albums are a mess, for entirely different reasons.