Ledisi is here. Where have you been?
For a brief, shining moment in the mid-1960s, Verve Forecast/Verve Folkways introduced the world to a new vanguard of songwriters like Richie Havens, Janis Ian, and Laura Nyro. It was an innovative expansion of its parent label's impressive jazz catalog. Because of ownership shuffling, Verve Forecast folded not too long after it launched. Four decades later, the label resurfaced with acts like Brazilian Girls and Jamie Cullum. It's quite an exercise to define what exactly Verve Forecast is now. Top 40 for tastemakers? "Adult" music with a twist? What is for certain is that during the past three years, the reconfigured label has consistently worked acts that fly just beneath the radar of mainstream but maintain a concentrated, devoted audience. That's about to change with Ledisi. Lost and Found suggests that Ledisi could very well be the first artist to break through in a major way on Verve Forecast.
What you get with Ledisi, to quote Tina Turner, is "BSS" -- a "bold soul sister". Ledisi has the goods, vocally, and her first major label release does much to spotlight her gift. Ledisi's arrival on Verve Forecast comes not without a large dose of perseverance. Her signing took a good two years and that was after the label had previously turned her down. The first single, "Alright", seems culled from Ledisi's own experiences. About the laundry list of life's obstacles, she admits, "I just want to run and hide/ But I don't have the time/ It's alright." Paying the bills, rainy days, world traumas, longing to see someone, and the inevitable life changes have definitely challenged Ledisi's positive determination but she emerges triumphant. "People come and they go/ That's just the way that it goes," Ledisi assures listeners, but one gets the sense that Ledisi will be sticking around for a little bit longer than your average diva du jour.
At a weighty eight producers, including the artist herself, one would figure that Lost and Found suffers from an identity crisis. Well, not so. If anything, the album is missing a certain "wild card" element. Rex Rideout, who co-wrote 10 of the 16 tracks, provides dependable (but not necessarily remarkable) grooves and clearly steers Ledisi towards mainstream R&B. As those who have seen Ledisi perform attest, her concerts are a breathless experience, leaving audiences to scurry about, finding new superlatives to describe her voice. (Is it any wonder that a "live" intro and outro frames the album?)
Ledisi's embodiment of lyrics is the real thrill of Lost and Found. That voice sets the speakers aflame on "Best Friend", a tune where Ledisi can hardly contain her desire for the title subject. "I wish you wanted me like I wanted you". It's the last word -- "you" -- that seeps up one's spinal column and hovers for a good beat or two. On "In the Morning", Ledisi conveys the complicated relationship between ecstasy and doubt with her phrasing of just two words: "Love me". Love, as sung through Ledisi's lips, explodes like a geyser, little bits of her heart splattering all over the place. The murmured "Lord have mercy" is well earned.
There are plenty of similar moments to go around on Lost and Find, especially when Rideout scales down the production on the bone-chilling title track. Alone by the piano, Ledisi expresses yearning from the bottom of her broken but hopeful heart:
Souls pass me by
Why can't they see me here?
Touch me one time
Just like magic, I will reappear
Sadness, like the rain,
It showers over me
I want to feel again
Please someone find me
Ledisi's imagery on "Lost and Found (Find Me)" perfectly captures the state of mind of a woman who's lived through pain ("lost") and is ready to be vulnerable again with the hope that love will prevail ("found"). No doubt, Ledisi's listeners will nod along in spine-tingling solace.
For the most part, Verve Forecast is playing it safe by immersing Ledisi in a strictly R&B milieu when she's clearly capable of more versatile styles. (See her first two indie solo albums and her contribution of "Blues in the Night" to Verve's recent Ella Fitzgerald tribute, We All Love Ella.) In a setting like Lost and Found, for example, a simple guitar solo on "I Tried" sounds like a left field ingredient when you just know this woman can rock out. Some listeners hear echoes of bands like Rufus on the album but only one track -- "Upside Down" -- really ventures into the land of genuine funk out of the safe confines of slickly produced contemporary R&B. (Adding a few jagged beats to a track doesn't necessarily constitute funk.) To harp on this fact, though, is to diminish the welcome presence Ledisi brings to popular music in 2007 with her remarkable set of pipes and sincere songwriting. This empress has clothes.