Lizz Wright is a very young, very talented singer of whom a record company might expect big things. She has a rich contralto that slides into your ear like honey. And she has the relaxed but confident phrasing of Sinatra—if he had been an African-American woman in the new millennium. Good things are bound to come from such a combination if you just let the talent simmer.
But the good people at Verve Forecast have not been able to resist turning up the heat just a bit. They think they know what the listening public wants for dinner—and that, needless to say, is Norah Jones.
Dreaming Wide Awake is Lizz Wright’s sophomore effort, and it is messy with the fingerprints of producers and handlers trying to turn this superb singer into a Norah-style star. Most obviously, Verve has paired Ms. Wright with Jesse Harris, the composer of the Norah-hit “Don’t Know Why”, to try to give this disc a Grammy-winning, 10 zillion-selling, zeitgeist capturing sound.
I want to be cynical about this, lamenting the commercial calculation in it all, but here’s the thing: Jesse Harris crafts some really nice songs, and the two we find here are dead-on. Both “Hit the Ground” (co-credited to Ms. Wright and the essential Toshi Reagon) and “Without You” use simple melodic fragments to build to memorable choruses, and the songs fit Ms. Wright’s voice with casual perfection. The tunes are crafted for radio play, sure, but these are songs you would be happy to hear on the radio (at least the first hundred times)—unburdened by overproduction, simply arranged for a (seemingly) live band. In short, this is Norah-cloning that is artistically successful.
The producers of Dreaming Wide Awake, however, were not content merely to purchase some Jesse Harris songwriting insurance. They have also purchased a Cassandra Wilson policy.
The whole of Dreaming Wide Awake was produced by Craig Street, the mastermind behind Ms. Wilson’s breakthrough Blue Note albums. On Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, Street ingeniously set Ms. Wilson’s quirky jazz contralto in a modern-folk setting (resonator guitars, acoustic bass, hand percussion) and helped her find ways to tackle rock era repertoire so that her unusual approach to singing became accessible to, say, the folks who bought Shawn Colvin’s mid-‘90s Grammy winner A Few Small Repairs. In Lizz Wright, Mr. Street has a similar project: a rich, jazz-trained voice in search of crossover success. And so Dreaming is drenched in Street’s sound—crisply recorded acoustic instruments percolating with the percussion of Jeff Haynes (from Ms. Wilson’s band), all set on a sonic canvas that seems simultaneously up-to-date and old-fashioned, where a song from the ‘20s like “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You” seems brand-new and a freshly penned original seems classic.
Two of Mr. Street’s best impulses are on display in this album’s first track, “A Taste of Honey”. Yeah, that “Taste of Honey”—the tune the Beatles recorded early and that Herb Alpert made into a mid-‘60s hit as a peppy faux-Mexican instrumental. Here, however, the tune is convincingly transformed into a haunting lament. Street achieves this, first and foremost, by allowing the unclassifiable (sort-of jazz) guitarist Bill Frisell to reharmonize the whole tune on his acoustic, then dropping some fat stand-up bass into the mix at just the right moment. When Ms, Wright alters the lyric slightly to sing “A taste honey / A taste more bitter than wine”, it is thoroughly convincing. The vocal performance is unaffected and simple, the very opposite of the over-melismatic American Idol style that currently drenches the radio thanks to Christina Aguilera, et al, and it starts the collection with quiet authority.
This reworking of unlikely standard songs continues with “Old Man”, the Neil Young song, the Ella Jenkins children’s song “Wake Up, Little Sparrow” and “Get Together”, the ‘60s anthem recorded by Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods. While the Young song is a fairly unremarkable cover, the other two startle with simple beauty. The Ella Jenkins song is not fancied-up or significantly altered, it’s just taken seriously, with Ms. Wright’s vocal imbuing the lyrics’ imagery with power. But “Get Together” works best of all—Street again has Frisell and Haynes plinking and shaking the simple arrangement into filigreed life, and Toshi Reagon lays in the background vocals. The track exhibits supreme relaxation, laying the song bare as the lost classic it truly is.
The problem with Dreaming, alas, is that what becomes a virtue on so many songs may be a liability as a whole. The best performances are relaxed—they float Ms. Wright’s chilled-out voice on a bed of gently textured down-tempo loveliness. But the album seems never to move from this mood. Ms. Wright never gets the chance to cut loose vocally (which she did quite a bit more of on her debut disc, Salt), and the sameness of tempo makes the whole show gauzy and almost dull. The title song, written by Ms. Wright on her own, provides more Frisellian jaggedness but is otherwise a snooze. You want to shout to Lizz: Sing it, girl! It’s not to be.
This problem, of course, was designed into this recording by the producers. If you will recall: Norah’s Come Away With Me was similarly even in texture, an album you could put on in the background or take seriously. But Dreaming Wide Awake suffers a bit more under this approach because Ms. Wright’s deep voice is already mellow and soothing even without the Sominex-effect of all those mid-tempos and all that Glenn Patscha organ. In the end, however, the strength of individual tracks wins out. The slow-funky version of “I’m Confessin’” is a stroke of genius that deserves to be played to death in Starbucks, not to mention in your living room. The remake of Joe Henry’s “Stop” (yeah, the song recorded by Madonna—ugh) insists on itself. “Get Together” closes the gap between yesterday and today.
So—will Dreaming Wide Awake bring million-selling success to Lizz Wright? Will Craig Street deliver another jazz-tinged crossover winner that lands Lizz festival gigs for summers to come? Awww, who cares? The pleasures of this disc are plain enough. As calculated as its production may have been, this is the kind of crass commercialism that’s based on making something of quality. Here’s hoping that more albums chase dollars with Bill Frisell and Toshi Reagon. Or, for that matter, with Lizz Wright.