Former folkie Frazey Ford returns with a set of exceptional Memphis soul.
Like many of the great soul records it seeks to emulate, Indian Ocean’s lead track “September Fields” is its strongest moment by a mile. Casting a long shadow over everything else that comes after, it serves as Ford’s “Let’s Stay Together”: a massive song with a strong hook, strutting soul backing from, appropriately enough, the Rev. Green’s band the Hi Rhythm Section (including the late Teenie Hodges in one of his final recorded performances) and an assuredness of character not possessed by the remaining tracks here. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the few up-tempo numbers on Indian Ocean, moving at a comparably brisk pace and clearly set up for lead single status.
This is not to say the nine remaining tracks should be relegated to filler status, rather they simply prove a bit too formulaic and interchangeable with their softly strummed acoustic guitar intros followed by gentle organ flutters and finally the arrival of the full band playing at a fairly slow tempo. While this formula certainly works, when used repeatedly on a number of tracks without immediately discernible hooks it serves more to flesh out sketches of song ideas to fill an entire album rather than create an album flush with instantly memorable material.
But that doesn’t seem to be Ford’s intent. Rather, she seeks to create songs that take time to grab hold, honoring the time-tested notion of “rewarding repeated listens” as with each subsequent spin, subtle nuances begin to emerge and the album carries with it a warm, inviting embrace. It’s the subtlety of the material and the performances that keep Indian Ocean in the back of one’s mind long after the title track’s conclusion.
Ford’s formerly folk-heavy phrasing easily slides into full-on soul mode, turning syllables over in her mouth and stretching consonants and vowels with equal aplomb. Only on several occasions does she find the lack of clear enunciation a bit cumbersome, stumbling over the words and falling into an unintelligible mush-mouthed delivery. “Runnin’” and “You Got Religion” in particular suffer from a lack of discernible articulation to the point of being unintelligible, especially on the latter, in which very little comes through with any sort of clarity. While much of the song’s lyrical content is obscured by Ford’s idiosyncratic delivery, the emotion and sentiments can still be gleaned from each performance.
Unlike Cat Power’s recent forays into Memphis soul, Ford here devotes her full attention to original material, imbuing each track with a lived-in feel possessed by the best soul performances. But the lack of immediately recognizable material performed in such a well-worn style puts just that much more pressure on Ford to come up with memorable songs. While nothing beyond opening track “September Fields” immediately sticks out, there are a handful of songs throughout that have their moments (“You’re Not Free”s wordless, triumphant chorus certainly has its charms).
Ford operates vocally within a fairly restrictive range, preventing a number of these songs from experiencing anything more than a slow boil that, given the correspondingly subdued nature of the instrumental backing, proves an appropriate, if not always entirely satisfying, fit. But in an age when overwrought vocal melisma has become de rigeur when looking to convey emotion or “soul”, Ford should be commended for her restraint and adherence to the genre’s roots wherein emotion was conveyed through the performance itself, an intangible quality that tends to elude those more focused on cramming as many notes into a phrase as possible.
With the title track’s elongated closing outro, Ford is able to show off some of her range overtop herself as she turns the title phrase over and over again until it loses its base meaning and becomes something else entirely. Harmonizing with herself and allowing for a bit more vocal flexibility, Ford takes a well-earned victory lap while the band plays her off. It’s a subtle, fitting end to a subtle, highly rewarding album.
Hers are songs that slowly make their way into your brain, lodging themselves in the melancholic pleasure center in which the best Memphis soul resides. Repeated listens bring out more and more character within each track, creating a distinct personality. Indian Ocean ultimately proves itself to be an exceptional slow-burner that eases its way into the ears, rewarding the patience of those who like their soul to have just that.