An Ode to Amel Larrieux: on how to follow a masterpiece, why the label "Neo-Soul" must be destroyed, and how to deal in The Twilight Zone, oops, I mean "the music industry".
Ride the product line
Hop in your box but don't protest
You just been signed
To the three ring bull!?#* business
Check your brain at the door
Then hang it up with your originality
-- Amel Larrieux, "Say You Want It All", Bravebird
If Rod Serling were a music critic, I bet he'd give Amel Larrieux's Morning some heavy rotation, fire up a cigarette, and say something like:
Witness Amel Larrieux -- an extraordinarily gifted vocalist, songwriter, arranger, and musician -- seemingly trapped, between being well-known and being famous, between folk hero and legend, fighting to climb out of the small hole in the universe known as "Neo-Soul", in which Artists are dropped like so many coins down a laundry machine slot, yet without so much as an echo if or when they hit the bottom. Amel Larrieux, artist and lover of musical textures, departed from a group called Groove Theory and, without warning or cautionary tale, entered…The Music Business Twilight Zone.
Who knows if he'd say that or not, but I know what I say:
I say "Neo-Soul" (the category, not the music placed within it) has got to go. Too many of our brothers and sisters are on lock down in this category, and it's time to break 'em out. I don't know who came up with "Neo-Soul", but it's played out. Over. Done. Finished. Now, like Amel Larrieux says on Morning's "Earn My Affections", it's time to "act like you know".
It's hard enough to create something, musically or otherwise, even stuff that's not so good, without having it placed in a faux category. Producing art -- or at least attempting to -- takes time, commitment, and tenacity. Creating a masterpiece? That's even harder, and there are as many theories on how to do it as there are on how to identify one. But when someone does manage to find the right vibration, to mine gold from a rubble of ideas, to craft a work so stunning we can only marvel at the achievement -- we often respond to the work like the dialogue at the beginning of James Brown's "Make It Funky": "What'chu gon' play now?" Maybe you're only as good as your next hit. James Brown knew how to answer that; he said, "I don't know. But whassinever I play, it's gah-tah-be funky."
So how do you follow a masterpiece? Many a superstar has had the chance to weigh in, as artists reach the mountaintop of industry expectations, only to confront the challenge of doing it all again. In some ways, it's easier to be a so-called "one hit wonder". There's no pressure. Nobody expects anything. You can go about your business, content in the knowledge that you at least had a hit (although you might get clowned by a certain music channel that loves to make top-whatever-lists). You don't have to worry if your latest effort will equal your personal Purple Rain, or Thriller, or Like a Virgin, or Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, or…well, you get the point.
For Larrieux, however, the question isn't, "How do you follow a masterpiece?" The question is, "How do you follow one of the most underrated masterpieces in recent memory?" Larrieux's Bravebird was a masterpiece. And, according to the Billboard 200, it peaked at, like, 166. One…sixty…six.
You know how everyone says, "There ought to be a law against insert-pet-peeve-here"? Well, there ought to be a law against sleeping on great music. On the other hand, maybe there's a stress reliever in being slept on. Certainly, no one can say the public is sick of Amel Larrieux saturating the market. Nobody's saying, "What can she do to top what she's already accomplished?"
Nobody, that is, except me. I wanted to know, "What'chu gon' play now?" and Larrieux has unwittingly responded with Morning, a near-masterpiece that consists of her characteristic genre-blending grooves and insightful arrangements. As always, she shares writing duties with husband Laru Larrieux, and, as usual, she's got a lot to sing about. But where Blackbird might be viewed as issue-oriented, Morning recalls the more ethereal and philosophical side of Larrieux, much like her debut album Infinite Possibilities. A phrase from Morning's first song, "Trouble", sums it up, "A higher ground, a mystical combination". We already knew she was intelligent, even if the beautiful sweetness of her voice sometimes masked the power of her words. Morning expresses her depth. The 10 selections on this disc are more than songs; they are poems set to music, intensely personal and intimate, as if she's singing from her diary. Crisply executed, you can hear every breath, swallow, and consonant like she's singing directly in your ear.
On "Unanswered Question", she contemplates an old flame and wonders whether she was "your one that got away". In her voice, you can hear the doubts and regrets implicated by the query. "No One Else" is a ballad cut from the same cloth as "Make Me Whole" from Infinite Possibilities, and is equally powerful. She could have stopped at "No One Else" and said, "Hey, let's just make another Infinite Possibilities," kicked back and drank an espresso (if that's what she drinks), and called it a day. Who could blame her? Infinite Possibilities was a great debut. Mimicking it wouldn't have been a bad way to stamp her name to a particular style.
But Morning doesn't go there, and that's the genius of it. It follows "No One Else" with "Earn My Affections", an off-beat and witty demand for emotional reciprocity, built around a beat that sounds like someone's knuckles knocking on a wooden door and fleshed out by Larrieux's layered vocals. Slyly, she says, "Here you come with those/ Unsteady eyes/ Like you been lookin' for somethin' you cannot find/ Right through me/ Like my fruit ain't fit for makin' pie". You have to listen to the song -- actually, the entire album -- with your headphones on, so you can catch Larrieux's various croonings, chants, and scats in each ear, as well as Laru Larrieux's faint responses and sounds in the background.
Then the album goes in yet another direction with "Weary", sporting fuller production from Carlos Henderson's bass and Chris Parks' guitar. It's a luscious, funky jam about individuality, refusing to compromise oneself in the search for that special, trusty someone. Next, there's the breathtaking title track, the album's centerpiece, which comes as a complete musical surprise. Warm and folksy, Joni Mitchell might hear this and think, "If Amel Larrieux had waited one more minute, I would've written this." Yeah, it's that brilliant.
"Gills and Tails" is moody and piano-driven, relying on water images ("Can I come up for air") to tell a story about life.
"Just Once" opens with Larrieux's a cappella metaphor about a lost boat with the wind blown out of its sails, causing it to stick "close to the shore", afraid of failure. Then the beat kicks in and the message is rendered less obliquely, the idea that "every moment" and "every lifetime" happens "just once". And then the bass kicks in. From there, it just gets funkier. (Don't forget to catch the breaths in the background alternating between ears when you listen on those headphones). On my first listen, I felt much like the Salieri character in the movie Amadeus, in the scene near the end where Salieri's nemesis, the sick and bedridden Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, dictates his genius for Salieri to transcribe to sheet music:
--Salieri: First bassoon, tenor trombone, what?!
--Mozart: With the tenors.
--Mozart: Of course! The instruments doubling the voices. Now…trumpets in D..."
--Salieri: No, I--"
--Mozart: Listen to me.
--Salieri: I don't understand!
See? The Larrieuxs' music is deceptively complex.
Finally, just when you thought the surprises were over, there's "Mountain of When".
Here we find Larrieux singing in her lower register, sliding the most haunting of melodies over staggered background vocals. "The writing's on the wall, " she sings, "But I took the scenic route and I can call / the numbers in the pocket of / my jeans through it all". It's weird and trippy and catchy, all at once.
A near-masterpiece, however, means this effort isn't flawless. For one, as much as I liked the song "Magic" and its theme of self-confidence, the metallic sound in its rhythm section grates on my ears. It's actually painful. For another, the album clocks in with less than 40 minutes of material. After nearly three years of waiting for a follow up to Blackbird, I would have loved a longer set. This will no doubt keep the Sade comparisons going, since both artists have worked with instrumental band Sweetback and since Sade, who seems to have installed a fountain of youth somewhere in her home, is notorious for long lapses between albums. Doesn't the joke go that Sade releases an album every 20 years but never ages? More than that, Sade's most recent album, Lovers Rock in 2000, featured about 45 minutes of similarly spare arrangements.
But let's cram the comparisons to other artists down the garbage disposal along with "keeping it real" and all references to "Neo-Soul". Aside from missing the point of Larrieux's quest for individuality, it's unnecessary.
Bottom line, get thee to thy record store and buy this album. Get Bravebird too if you haven't already.
Act like you know.