For someone whose career is still young, Ethiopian-born vocalist Gigi (née Ejigayehu Shibabaw) has a somewhat confusing discography. Her label, Palm Pictures, is billing this is as her second album. It’s actually her third for Palm and her sixth overall. Her recording career really began in 1997, when she released both the studio album Tsehay and the disc that got her noticed, Éthiope/Chants d’Amour, a collection of traditional Ethiopian love songs recorded at a world culture festival in France and released in that country.
The following year, she moved to California and began carving out the foundation for her current style on One Ethiopia. Despite somewhat rinky-dink production values, the album evidenced her worldly travels as well as the already richly blended confluence of styles found in popular Ethiopian music for decades. Located on the Horn of Africa, the country is geographically at the brim of the Middle East, and the beguiling modulations of that region’s music have seeped into the sounds produced by Ethiopian musicians, and by Gigi specifically. Also strongly present in the Ethiopian sound are jazz, R&B and funk. With over 20 volumes in the series, Buda’s Ethiopiques collections are incredible and serve well to illustrate the undercurrent of Gigi’s own sound.
One can almost forgive Palm for ignoring Gigi’s career prior to her signing with them, for it was on 2001’s Gigi that she really latched onto her own style. Or, perhaps more accurately, her own approach was then merged with the style of Bill Laswell, who has produced Laurie Anderson, Afrika Bambaataa, Iggy Pop, Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, and dozens of others, along with playing bass on countless other sessions and founding the band Material, an experimental dub-funk ensemble. His is not a hands-off approach, and all of Gigi’s Palm releases are slickly produced world-music albums with elements of dub, house, and other modern textures.
One could also forgive Gigi’s label for ignoring her second album with them, 2003’s Illuminated Audio. This was clearly Laswell’s project through and through. Perhaps he didn’t see his fingerprints clearly enough on Gigi, because its follow-up found him taking the original recordings and adding his own ambient dub flourishes, creating what are essentially completely new tracks for Illuminated Audio, a Gigi album by name only. Burying such a talented voice in echoes and synth washes was a foolhardy effort resulting in a mediocre release.
For Gigi’s “long-awaited second album” Gold & Wax. Bill Laswell is back behind the glass and stirring the stew. Also on board is a stellar cast of supporting musicians, including keyboardist Bernie Worrell (a member of Parliament and Funkadelic, you’ve also seen him in the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense), hip Norwegian jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, and Indian-American percussionist/songwriter Karsh Kale. Given the daring nature of these musicians, Gold & Wax is a little disappointing, a little tame, a bit too rounded off at the edges.
Gigi is just into her early thirties, but her latest album feels tailored more to the Boomer crowd than to her cohorts. While the beats are reasonably contemporary, the skittery snare drum sound that seemed fresh in 1996 is now utterly safe 10 years on; likewise the long, stretching bass notes, and most definitely many of the ambient keyboard patches. Also, the record’s Middle Eastern touches seem tacked on, rather than fundamental. Fortunately, Gigi’s powerful, enchanting, and supple voice is able to cut through the arrangements often enough to make her album somewhat distinctive, but it still fails to rise above the vast middle ground.
Gigi is a very talented singer with a rich and restless musical background, but Gold & Wax suffers a little too often from stale and heavy-handed arrangements that squelch the prodigious talents of both her and her sidemen. The elements were all there, and my anticipation for this album was high. Ultimately, however, Gold Wax is merely just fine.