Me’Shell Ndegéocello is getting, slowly by surely, more minimal. And the more minimal she gets, the more riveting she becomes.
It’s not as if she’s never been engaging: her slightly-askew, outward bound brand of soul, hip-hop, rock and folk has demanded attention since her taunting, tantalizingly funky “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” became a left-field hit in 1993. As this singer, songwriter, and lethally dangerous bass player reaches her mid-forties, she embraces the maturity that comes with age fully prepared in the wisdom department, and just as unwilling to dull her edge. No, only nowadays disguises those sharp edges better.
Comet, Come to Me, out June 3, 2014, continues her steadfast 2-3 year gap between new material (her last such collection, Weather, dropped in 2011), and such as her output has been of late, Comet is sensual, not by being explicit about it, but found in the voids left in the sound and the delicacy in her own voice.
Guitarist Chris Bruce returns from Weather, and Jebin Bruni (keyboards) along with Sylvester Earl Harvin (drums and percussion) join him in backing up Ndegéocello. P-funk veteran and record producer Amp Fiddler, psychedelic folk troubadour Jonathan Wilson and Texas guitar sideman Doyle Bramhall II put in some guest spots.
Ndegéocello again puts together a heterogeneous batch of songs with a homogenous vibe. Whatever style she plays, it’s in a seductive, vaguely atmospheric coating, like a dialed-back Daniel Lanois production. “Tom 2″ is awash in neo-soul glow but Bruce’s tasty rhythm guitars grounds the tune as surely as Ndegéocello’s central phrase “the force that passes through our hearts and the truth of knowing something’s wrong.”
“Good Day Bad” has that same swampy, blues-folk character of Blind Faith’s “One My Way Back Home,” only with more twang due to a banjo. “Continuous Performance” delves into Brit-pop, and “Shopping For Jazz” isn’t jazz at all but a singer-songwriter kind of song not unlike George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” at its core. “Conviction” is straight ahead rock with a soul streak, followed by the angular, bass-less “Folie A Deux,” with its sharp corners softened by sparsely applied vibes. The descent to a soft landing continues with “Choices,” atmospheric with an abrasive edge, and “American Rhapsody,” where the dreamy textures dominate over the actual melody.
Reggae and dancehall are genres that get many visits but each time Ndegéocello goes there (“Forget My Name,” “Comet, Come To Me,” “Modern Time”), she treats it a little differently. One constant is her distinctively accurate bass lines.
Ndegéocello has revealed a provocative interpretive side before, but there may not have been an odder choice for a cover than a largely forgotten Whodini hit from the early, innocent days of hip hop. “Friends,” is deconstructed into a semi-flamenco acoustic guitar motif, start-stop drums, and a pulsing synth. When she sings “Friends: how many of us have them…ones we can depend on” it’s done with a mechanical delivery, portraying a cynical view that trust is so hard to come by.
With her complete command of the complexion of music in its many forms and the creativity to forge something different and compelling from that command found all over Comet, Come To Me, it’s tempting to call Me’Shell Ndegéocello the female Prince. Especially lately, it might be more accurate to call Prince the male Ndegéocello…but only on Prince’s better days.