Essra Mohawk has been in the margins of the music world for the last 40 years. Frank Zappa discovered her, and she soon became the first female member of the Mothers of Invention. Since then, she’s had more success as a songwriter than as a performer, but she has released a series of solo albums. On Best of Essra: The First Millennium, her work from 1969-1999 is collected chronologically over 14 tracks. The compilation shows that she’s gone a strong voice and good writing skills, but that she’s at her best as an outsider. Her weakest tracks come during the ‘80s, when her lyrics and production bend unsuccessfully to the times.
The first two tracks on the disc focus on Mohawk’s voice, with the instrumentals providing a vehicle for the expressive singing. On “You’ll Dance Alone”, originally released in 1969, only a piano accompanies Mohawk, who sings the unoriginal melody well. “Summersong” adds some more instrumentation, most notably jazz-inflected electric guitar, but it’s still the singing that matters. Mohawk has a unique sound, and she’s willing to take chances with her vocal lines, mixing pop and jazz influences and easily switching between registers.
The next three songs come from 1982’s Burnin’ Shinin’, originally released on San Francisco Sound. Mohawk still leans toward a smooth sound, mixing a bit of the political and the personal in her lyrics (she wrote or co-wrote nearly every song on this collection). “Poor People Know How to Play” combines a hippie’s thinking with a Broadway musicality. The result overstays its welcome by about two minutes, but the track is enjoyable, even if it sounds more dated than her older material. The other two tracks from this album, “Can’t Turn the Night Off” and “Burnin’ Shinin’”, have more of a pop feel and reveal and increased use of synths. “Burnin’ Shinin’” particularly sounds like a product of its time, and the lyrics sound a little lazy (yes, it’s a star metaphor).
1985’s E-Turn doesn’t show an improvement in Mohawk’s ‘80s output. The three tracks collected here sound custom made for a forgettable movie from the era. “Digital” is the most memorable song, but largely because it seems to epitomize the mainstream music of the time. The keys and drums give a slight nod to no-wave and the lyrics question reality in a digital world: “You’re digital, baby / Just like the beat of my heart ... Are you a man or a machine?” The hook on this song’s catchy, and the synthetic bass keeps the groove. It’s surprising that this song wasn’t a hit 20 years ago. Lyrically and sonically, the song has the pieces for pop success, even if it sounds a bit clichéd now.
The final six songs on the album come from Mohawk’s two 1990s albums, Raindance and Essie Mae Hawk Meets the Killer Groove Band, and are the collection’s strongest numbers. The songs are direct pieces with a singer-songwriter feel and sometimes a country-ish twang. Taken as part of this chronology, they sound like Mohawk’s return to her original aesthetic. Most of the tracks utilize a full band, but it stays in the background. Mohawk’s got a strong voice, and her songs work best when she stays at the front. The last three songs, as you might guess from their album’s title, have a bit more groove, and they rock a little more. “Not That Jesus” combines Southern rock guitar with Mohawk’s earlier synth influences and it works wonderfully under her co-production. She sings “I can’t walk on water / But I walked on eggshells as a child”. Mohawk’s oblique lyrics present a challenge to the listener for the first real time on this album. With her best lyrics and most interesting music coming in the CD’s final track, “Not That Jesus” serves less as an end to a retrospective and more as promise that Mohawk’s future music could be compelling. The compilation’s a little uneven, but it sounds like Mohawk’s finally heading her best direction. Here’s to the next millennium.