Melody Gardot: Currency of Man

Largely leaving her jazz-pop past behind, Melody Gardot tries her hand at more soulful fare with highly rewarding results.

Melody Gardot

Currency of Man

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2015-06-02
UK Release Date: 2015-06-01

When she first appeared on the scene nearly a decade ago, singer-songwriter Melody Gardot found herself lumped in with fellow jazz-pop performers Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. While certainly good company, her early recordings felt a bit homogeneous and derivative to truly stand out. What she did have going for her even then, however, was a sultry vocal style that set her just enough aside from her peers to keep listeners interested even after her particular brand of easy listening began to fall out of favor.

A clear talent, Gardot worked to reinvent herself following the success of her breakout album, My One and Only Thrill. Coming three years after that album, 2012’s The Absence was the result of Gardot’s self-styled reinvention, eschewing jazz-pop in favor of more rhythmically and stylistically adventurous material. While a bold move artistically, it failed to resonate commercially.

Now, two years later, Gardot is back with a new album and a new direction, this one far better suited to her smoldering vocals. Where The Absence relied more on Latin and South American forms and rhythms, Currency of Man finds her returning home, taking on a soul and R&B sound that feels more like a natural extension of her earlier recordings.

Always a deceptively soulful vocalist, here Gardot finally fulfills the promise of her earlier efforts, delivering a set of throwback soul and R&B that ranges from the wickedly funky (“It Gonna Come”) to Sam Cooke-esque ballads (“Morning Sun”). Throughout, her subtle, effortless vocals prove an ideal fit for this particular style. Far form sounding forced or affected, Gardot here sounds laidback, natural and very much in her element.

Where before the songs themselves were reflections of Gardot in their deeply personal lyrical nature, here her words take on more of a universal quality, moving outside of herself, and her voice becomes the central focus, its nooks and crannies explored in ways they hadn’t been previously. And where others exploring their soulful side tend to go for bold and brassy, Gardot takes a more refined, highly accomplished approach, placing her focus more in the nuance of the phrasing than ornamental runs and vocal flourishes that ultimately add little to the song.

Instead, hers is a far more subtle approach more in line with some of soul and R&B’s greatest practitioners, relying more on an innate knowledge of the material and a masterful ability to convey emotions with the least amount of unnecessary vocal embellishments. Like a female Al Green, Gardot shows a masterful control over her voice, able to belt when the song or phrase calls for it, but largely relying on the quieter reaches of her voice. “Same to You” perfectly conveys this dichotomy, with Gardot restraining her voice for much of the performance, pushing it where and when necessary, displaying masterful control of the softer, more intimate parts of her range throughout.

Similarly, the simmering strings underscoring “Don’t Misunderstand”s club-footed funk serve to perfectly compliment Gardot’s simmering performance, one which threatens to boil over several times before settling back into a subdued groove. It’s yet another indication of Gardot’s sense of knowing her way around a song, allowing her voice to rise in conjuncture with the arrangement, remaining atop the other instruments but never dominating.

On “Bad News", she soulfully struts around the melody, backed by a sparse arrangement. At a slow shuffle, hers is a performance for which adjectives like “smoldering” were intended, easing her way into the song and allowing it to slowly unfold. With horns snaking in and out of her phrasing (complete with a blistering, borderline avant garde saxophone solo), it’s far and away one of the best, most understated performances on the album.

Proving she hasn’t fully abandoned her roots, “If Ever I Recall Your Face” finds her slipping into the darker end of the balladic spectrum. Employing a throwback aesthetic that calls to mind the soaring, melancholy arrangements on Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours or even Julie London’s middle-period recordings, Gardot shows herself to be a masterful torch singer. It’s an impressive move and, despite its stylistic incongruity, fits in well with the more pop-oriented material on the rest of the album due to Gardot’s soulful, understated delivery.

Where others would rely on wordless vocal flourishes and melisma to convey an air of technical virtuosity through to approximate the contemporary notion of what it means to be soulful, Gardot’s focus is more on conveying the emotional underpinnings, the basic building blocks of the very best soul music. And while should could stand to let her voice loose a bit more than she does here, it’s a minor complaint given the overall quality of her work here. With any luck, Currency of Man should mark the beginning of what could easily prove to be a fruitful stylistic path for the gifted performer.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.