A subdued and dark sophomore release from a talented kinda-jazz singer.
Melody Gardot is singer with a great sound -- intimate rather than overblown, tinged with smoke rather than hype, a retro-ish kind of now. My One and Only Thrill is a quiet, blue-tinged collection of ten original songs and one choice cover. It is a sophisticated, jazz-steeped pop record, and a major-label followup to her independently recorded debut, Worrisome Heart (2006).
Gardot's story is remarkable -- she recorded Heart after barely surviving a hit-and-run; she lives in pain and in a state of intense sensitivity to light and sound. The debut got terrific notices, but it remained under the radar until Gardot recorded a version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" for a Chevy Malibu commercial that premiered on the February 2008 Grammy broadcast and then played incessantly during 2008 NFL games. Verve picked up Worrisome Heart for distribution and surely put Gardot under some pressure to record her next disc. Would she be the next Norah Jones?
Like Jones, Gardot has a gorgeous burgundy tone in her throat, and she favors slow-to-medium tempos. She also consolidates influences, but in a different way than Jones. Her brooding melodies are less radio-ready and are more likely to sound like the long-form shapes of Tin Pan Alley songwriting. "The Rain", for example, makes a long arc over piano accompaniment, interwoven with a martini-crisp alto saxophone improvisation.
Which is not to say that My One and Only Thrill is jazz, exactly. With its frequent string arrangements and infrequent feeling of swing, Thrill has more in common with the elegant pop made by Sinatra and Nancy Wilson in the 1950s and '60s, or the music of Edith Piaf. It has the midnight sensibilities of Only the Lonely but also the downer intimacy of contemporary emo-folk. It's a bummer. But a beautiful bummer.
The somber strings that begin "Deep Within the Corners of My Mind" are enough to have you reaching for a Paxil. Gardot's voice is whispering directly to you, intimate and without unnecessary embellishment, yet bent toward blues at critical moments. The harmonies transcend folk simplicity, but there is none of the fussiness or fancy-pantsy instrumental play of jazz.
As lovely and beautifully crafted as such songs are, Thrill offers little respite from this mood. The opening song, "Baby I'm a Fool", has a playful lilt carried by strummed acoustic guitar and winsome melody. But it's still a downer about bad love affair. The title track begins with a descending cello line that leads the singer into a meditation on a list of incompletenesses ("Birds may cease to spread their wings... Shores may never reach the tide", and so on) that "don't matter" because of her lover's presence. An apocalyptic love song. And a very very slow one.
The mood only lightens when Gardot leans toward the strummy rhythms of Brazil. "If the Stars Were Mine" hops lightly with a samba groove ("I'd teach the birds such lovely words / And make them sing for you"). She scats a lovely little solo over bubbling hand percussion -- no orchestration to be heard. And the closer is a samba-fied version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that is about 90% irresistible, even with the strings mushing it up a little bit. It's a great song, sung by a great voice, finding fresh expression. Like that Chevrolet commercial, it lets Gardot apply her cooler-than-optimal approach to a song that benefits greatly from being undersung. It's a hip kind of casualness, and it is the track on Thrill that most makes Gardot seem like a smart young woman rather than a bit of a young fogey.
I'll say it straight up: This would be a better collection if something just moved a little faster, or rocked even a little or, I don't know, just had some fun.
I don't mean to sound disappointed with My One and Only Thrill, because it has some great strengths. "Who Will Comfort Me" has a tasty backbeat, a gospel-blues melody, and some punchy/growling horns. "Your Heart Is As Black As The Night" lopes along like a Raymond Chandler hero pacing the sidewalks of LA at midnight. But Thrill is drenched in slow tempos and downheartedness. "Lover Undercover" is about escaping darkness (and it has a great melodic turn), but it's still dark. "Our Love Is Easy": maybe it is, but this song, this melody, and this arrangement dig another deep well of brooding bummer-ness.
This sense of world-weary sophistication is further emphasized by "Les Etoiles", a original song mostly in French that begs for comparisons to a Piaf chanteuse song. That said, the song features a hip arrangement, setting an alto saxophone against acoustic guitar, vibraphone, and subtle brass accents. But I think you might admire it more than like it.
Melody Gardot is a fantastic singer, and she seems to be an artist who knows the kind of indigo mood she wants to create. Using jazz and pop in equal proportions, she hardly seems to be aspiring to crass commercial success. Good for her. Goodness knows, her personal story entitles her to sidestep a carefree artistic vision -- and her gift is for imbuing the air with a certain whiskey tartness. But My One and Only Thrill, in its insistently slow tempos and heavy-heartedness, resists a full embrace.