[11 March 2008]
Southern soul’s genteel side finds perfect expression in Lizz Wright’s latest release, The Orchard. Smart, passionate, and lucid, the gifted songstress from Hahira, Georgia reconnects with the rhythms, lessons, and spirits of her rural past. Finding strength, wisdom, and perspective in the comforting memories of home, Wright bears her soul without the slightest hint of trepidation. Her passionate testimonials on birthplace, love, heartbreak, and life are intensely personal, yet deeply rooted in a much larger tradition. One hears echoes of the country blues found in the work of artists as varied as Terry Callier, Bill Withers, Tracy Chapman, and Cassandra Wilson.
One also hears a woman increasingly comfortable with her own story. Supported by songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon, John Leventhal, Dave Tozer, and her producer Craig Street, Wright penned lyrics for The Orchard’s eight originals. Continuing the eclectic style forged on her first two releases, Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake, the burgeoning writer synthesizes different worlds, traditions, and rhythms. None of her compositions lend themselves to easy categorization. The stunning opener “Coming Home” showcases her deep roots in the Holiness church, but the song’s spiritual sentiments extend far beyond the type of religiosity manifest on Sunday morning. The singer’s jazz training shines in her immaculate phrasing on “Another Angel” and “When I Fall”, yet these pop-inflected tunes seem ready made for regular rotation on adult contemporary radio.
Consider Wright a skilled alchemist who refuses to let one genre have the final word. Spirituals, gospel, folk, country, and rock inhabit the same space in her sonic and existential world. Small surprise given Wright’s broad influences and interests, the covers on The Orchard are as diverse as the originals. Once again proving her deft interpretive skills, Wright wraps her beautiful contralto around Ike and Tina Turner’s sultry, “I Idolize You”, Led Zeppelin’s gorgeous “Thank You”, Patsy Cline’s haunting “Strange”, and the Sweet Honey in the Rock classic, “Hey Mann”. She confidently inserts own individuality into these songs without compromising their integrity. Trusting the strength of her stories and the emotional intensity of her voice, Wright sings with a powerful delicacy. Never does she rely on bogus melismas or meandering solos from her band to convey life’s joys and pains.
One drawback to her minimalist approach, however, is her tendency to leave the listener wanting more. A case in point is the spine-quivering “Speak Your Heart”, with backing vocals from Chocolate Genius, Marc Anthony Thompson. Clocking in at three minutes and forty-five seconds, this forthright call for greater honesty deserves another verse, chorus, bridge, or something. Nothing’s inherently wrong with brevity—artistic restraint can be a beautiful thing—but there are times when the songs on The Orchard fade out prematurely.
Time complaints aside, Lizz Wright delivers the goods. Five years into the game, this Southern belle from small town Georgia may not be moving Norah-like units, but she’s definitely lived up to the artistic hype.