When she first appeared on the scene nearly a decade ago, singer-songwriter Melody Gardot found herself lumped in with fellow jazz-pop performers Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. While certainly good company, her early recordings felt a bit homogeneous and derivative to truly stand out. What she did have going for her even then, however, was a sultry vocal style that set her just enough aside from her peers to keep listeners interested even after her particular brand of easy listening began to fall out of favor.
A clear talent, Gardot worked to reinvent herself following the success of her breakout album, My One and Only Thrill. Coming three years after that album, 2012’s The Absence was the result of Gardot’s self-styled reinvention, eschewing jazz-pop in favor of more rhythmically and stylistically adventurous material. While a bold move artistically, it failed to resonate commercially.
Now, two years later, Gardot is back with a new album and a new direction, this one far better suited to her smoldering vocals. Where The Absence relied more on Latin and South American forms and rhythms, Currency of Man finds her returning home, taking on a soul and R&B sound that feels more like a natural extension of her earlier recordings.
Always a deceptively soulful vocalist, here Gardot finally fulfills the promise of her earlier efforts, delivering a set of throwback soul and R&B that ranges from the wickedly funky (“It Gonna Come”) to Sam Cooke-esque ballads (“Morning Sun”). Throughout, her subtle, effortless vocals prove an ideal fit for this particular style. Far form sounding forced or affected, Gardot here sounds laidback, natural and very much in her element.
Where before the songs themselves were reflections of Gardot in their deeply personal lyrical nature, here her words take on more of a universal quality, moving outside of herself, and her voice becomes the central focus, its nooks and crannies explored in ways they hadn’t been previously. And where others exploring their soulful side tend to go for bold and brassy, Gardot takes a more refined, highly accomplished approach, placing her focus more in the nuance of the phrasing than ornamental runs and vocal flourishes that ultimately add little to the song.
Instead, hers is a far more subtle approach more in line with some of soul and R&B’s greatest practitioners, relying more on an innate knowledge of the material and a masterful ability to convey emotions with the least amount of unnecessary vocal embellishments. Like a female Al Green, Gardot shows a masterful control over her voice, able to belt when the song or phrase calls for it, but largely relying on the quieter reaches of her voice. “Same to You” perfectly conveys this dichotomy, with Gardot restraining her voice for much of the performance, pushing it where and when necessary, displaying masterful control of the softer, more intimate parts of her range throughout.
Similarly, the simmering strings underscoring “Don’t Misunderstand”s club-footed funk serve to perfectly compliment Gardot’s simmering performance, one which threatens to boil over several times before settling back into a subdued groove. It’s yet another indication of Gardot’s sense of knowing her way around a song, allowing her voice to rise in conjuncture with the arrangement, remaining atop the other instruments but never dominating.
On “Bad News”, she soulfully struts around the melody, backed by a sparse arrangement. At a slow shuffle, hers is a performance for which adjectives like “smoldering” were intended, easing her way into the song and allowing it to slowly unfold. With horns snaking in and out of her phrasing (complete with a blistering, borderline avant garde saxophone solo), it’s far and away one of the best, most understated performances on the album.
Proving she hasn’t fully abandoned her roots, “If Ever I Recall Your Face” finds her slipping into the darker end of the balladic spectrum. Employing a throwback aesthetic that calls to mind the soaring, melancholy arrangements on Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours or even Julie London’s middle-period recordings, Gardot shows herself to be a masterful torch singer. It’s an impressive move and, despite its stylistic incongruity, fits in well with the more pop-oriented material on the rest of the album due to Gardot’s soulful, understated delivery.
Where others would rely on wordless vocal flourishes and melisma to convey an air of technical virtuosity through to approximate the contemporary notion of what it means to be soulful, Gardot’s focus is more on conveying the emotional underpinnings, the basic building blocks of the very best soul music. And while should could stand to let her voice loose a bit more than she does here, it’s a minor complaint given the overall quality of her work here. With any luck, Currency of Man should mark the beginning of what could easily prove to be a fruitful stylistic path for the gifted performer.
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