There’s a difference between a great musical mind and a great musical mind. On Ambrose Akinmurse’s excellent 2014 set The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, the trumpeter stepped aside for the haunting voice of Becca Stevens and her brilliantly sexy “Our Basement (Ed)”. One of the best unheard songs of the year, it was six-and-a-half minutes of expertly crafted musical intrigue that brought as much atmosphere as it did ambiguity. On an album filled with connecting uppercuts, it was the moment that solidified a knockout blow.
Much of the credit for it went to Stevens. And rightfully so. It was her song. Her voice. Her delicacy. It marked a clear leap forward from 2011’s Weightless, which felt just a little too predictable for a mind as complex and talented as the songstress seemed to have. Still, it wasn’t until that shining moment on one of jazz music’s most exciting recent releases did the North Carolina native dive just a little bit deeper than she ever had before. Deeper into herself. Deeper into her potential.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Perfect Animal, her band’s outstanding debut for Universal Music Classics, feels like the logical next step for an artist determined to work in leaps. If “Our Basement (Ed)” opened a door, then these 10 songs are the sound of her barreling through it with more promise than a rainy wedding day. It’s a tour de force through every element of her expertise: quirky time changes, interesting cover songs, a voice made to fill a theater and a haunting honesty that peers through each note with a poise too good to ignore.
“Be Still”, perhaps the most compelling track here, shines with the type of intricacies that only Stevens can concoct. Eased in with a pop groove that ultimately twists and turns more than anything on radio dare ever do, the best parts come as her smartly layered vocals stand front and center. It’s a lesson in moving parts, genuine proof that sometimes more can indeed be better, yet only when it’s done tastefully, which plays right into the singer’s strengths. Why? Because taste should be her middle name.
Check out “Tillery” for an argument worthy of that sentence. The fun begins with a percussive interlude, but it’s lights out once those multi-part harmonies wash over the recording. It’s worldly and exotic and addicting and enthralling. Backed by her own acoustic guitar, she then settles down with grace before kicking up dust again, only to give way to a backbeat that cuts in half at the 1:18 mark. A simple snare/kick-drum pattern only has as much impact as it does here when it’s used thoughtfully. Stevens, to her credit, never lets a note pass without examination.
That is why her choices in cover tunes seem that much more impressive. Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” receives a relatively straight-forward makeover, the singer deducing enunciations with occasional cutesy crescendos. The girth of the original might be gone, but its message breaths a new life. Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” is then slowed down with an acoustic guitar and one of the more pedestrian drum patterns the record offers. It works, though, somehow giving the 1990s pop-R&B classic more pop, more rhythm and more blues. It’s not that you didn’t believe Mr. Raymond back in 1997 when he said, “Before anything came between us / You were like my best friend.” It’s just that when this voice tackles such a proclamation, your heart breaks just the tinniest bit.
Neither of those renditions compare to Perfect Animal‘s most lasting moment, though: Stevens’ take on Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You”. We all know how profound Ocean’s falsetto can be, but … damn, Ms. Stevens. Sure, the structure doesn’t veer too far astray from its original incarnation, and yeah, these weren’t even words that she wrote. But holy moly does she own them in a way they had previously never been possessed. By the time verse two comes around and the singer proclaims “Got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho” — one of the song’s best lines anyway — cuts and it cuts deep. Not because she sounds innocent; it’s because it sounds like she means it. Get to the bridge, and a voice that sounds like a thousand-yard-stare, and it will be hard to remember who Frank Ocean is.
None of this is to suggest any element of slight shrift to the rest of the set. The title track is one of smartest pop songs of 2015 so far (where else would a hook proclaim, “It’s impossible / To live in parables”?). Opener “I Asked” recalls Weightless with its soft rock edge and prominent ukelele. “105” establishes a singer who knows how to get vulnerable in the most confident of ways. And “Reminder” rocks harder than you might think she could, thundering tom-tom fills and all. If the guitars don’t push it forward, Stevens’ mild angst surely makes her point.
And what’s her point? Well, with Perfect Animal Becca Stevens’ point might just be to establish herself as a force of a songwriter, a hell of a musical thinker and one elegantly provocative artist who more people need to know more about yesterday. These songs are not songs that are meant to be taken lightly; rather, they are well-constructed glimpses into a modern day perspective on a craft that so easily and so often becomes watered down with predictable grooves, 4/4 time signatures and enough bass to make Meghan Trainor blush. This is a statement of arrival, a piece of proof that exciting, complex and interesting pop music is still out there and it’s still as good as it’s ever been.
Or, in other words, it’s the product of a great musical mind.