"Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don't". So begins "Video", the lead single for an album that is going to feature on a lot of people's lists of best of 2001. In one line India.Arie (do we really need that dot?) places herself beside Badu, Scott and the neo-soul women and in a different part of the park from both the Destiny's Child/TLC R&B materialists and the Lil Kim/Foxy Brown hip-hop bad girls. Three different images, three different genres? Anyway, that seems to be the state of black female popular music just now. Over-simplification? Just try to imagine the latter two factions even contemplating using a lyric like the above. Impossible.
In every way, this 25-year-old from Atlanta out of Denver looks and sounds the part of the new soul songstress—conscious and serious, clever and, perhaps, a little self-righteous. All the ingredients are there. The usual influences—explicitly cited for a change, the look—Afrohippy, the spirituality—intense, and the quiet self-confidence. She emerges fully-formed from what is now a familiar mould. Yet Arie is, thankfully, much more than a clone. Picked and marketed for those obvious nu-soul attributes (and with crossover to a rock and pop audience almost certainly in mind) there are more than enough distinctive features about this album to make us sit up and take notice. Just as Badu differs from Scott, India.Arie is different again.
The key is in the word “acoustic”. This is a very folky album. More specifically, it is a singer-songwriter album in the early seventies sense of the word. Despite the canonical dedications, as many listeners will be reminded of James Taylor and Carly Simon as of Donny Hathaway or Stevie Wonder. Laura Nyro, Roberta Flack or even Tracy Chapman might be even more appropriate. Take that songwriter sensibility, add a soulful voice plus arrangements that marry contemporary urban rhythms to folk-rock forms and you get close to the feel of this album. For the most part it works exceedingly well.
For the most part. Some of the wetter and more humourless New Ageism irritates and this very good record ends with undoubtedly the worst song of the year, any year. Billed as a “bonus” track, “Wonderful” will make you cringe. A tribute to Stevie Wonder (neat title, eh?), it opens with the unhappy couplet “You are the sunshine of my life / Another Shakespeare of our time” and the rest of the tune is made up of the man’s song-titles very forcedly strung-together. Its earnestness is painful. Whatever you do—do not play this track first—it will put you off the rest.
And the rest is worth a lot. True, ballads like the wispy “Beautiful” contain hints of the awfulness of the last track and “Nature” and “I See God In You” are as banally solemn as their titles suggest, but the bulk of the material is musically and lyrically impressive. On top of this Arie has a great voice—purer and richer than any of the established new classic women. The acoustic guitar as dominant instrument is, in this context, refreshing and there is enough melodic variety to hold the interest. As a wordsmith Arie is patchy and over-reaches herself from time to time but when she hits home, it is a big hit. The witty and the memorable lines linger longer than do the weaker ones. There are probably more actual “songs” on this disc than on any four others in the area and that has got to be good.
The bouncier numbers are well-crafted and very infectious. “Video” will get played to death over the next month or so but its catchiness and charm are undeniable. Even better is “Part of My Life” which has a great hook and a gentle funkiness, as well as considerable bite. Fresh and forceful, this is a modern soul classic in the making. “Strength, Courage and Wisdom” is an anthemic slab of positivity that avoids sounding smug, while “Simple”, with stutter rhythm track, gets closest to an R&B feel. On the downtempo side “Brown Skin” is soulful and sexy while “Back to the Middle” is the highlight of the socially-conscious folk-statement tunes. All of these have strong lyrics and impeccable instrumentation.
This album will do very well and rightly so. It is by no means perfect but has five or six numbers that are better than most things around at the moment. I am suspicious of Soul/R&B product that seems to have a mainstream market in mind but commerce and art go together well here. Motown, under new(ish) boss Kedar Massenburg have been looking for a big new act for a while. It is nicely ironic that they may well have found it in a singer-songwriter from the indepedent Atlanta Groovement/Earthseed stable, whose main audience to date has been the Yinn Yang cafe crowd and the more obsessive black indie collectors and watchers. There are a number of other talents to be found in that quarter. Let’s hope they also make the transition to the big-time without losing their essential flavour.
For that is the main achievement of India.Arie and her musicians and producers. Acoustic Soul retains a warm, organic feel throughout. If some of the tracks are a little po-faced and will have you running for some Miami bass slackness as a counterbalance, then for the most part you will be soothed and uplifted by the sheer artistry of the songs. You will even find yourself swaying and singing along to some of them. All things considered, an auspicious “debut” and I don’t care that it could be this year’s record-by-a-black-woman-that-people-who-don’t-like-most-black-music buy. It sure as hell beats Macy Gray.