Canon Fire: Songbook subversions from Meshell Ndegeocello

When you were in grade school, did you ever create a self-portrait collage from cut-and-pasted magazine clippings? That’s often what covers albums feel like: Skewed memoirs assembled from lost-and-found media, disparate materials that somehow add up to a warped yet truthful reflection of the auteur. Such is the case with Ventriloquism, an assembly of interpretive performances from Meshell Ndegeocello—a portrait of the artist as a deep conceptual thinker, a champion of diversity, a questioner of canon, a faithful dissident.

Ndegeocello has never made the same album twice, nor has she ever released anything that’s merely a collection of songs: There’s always clear intellectual scaffolding to her records, and with Ventriloquism those ideological frameworks provide several points of entry. The most obvious is the album’s representational value: The 11 songs here comprise works from artists of color, and about half are songs by women. Inclusivity is built into this record from the ground up, and it’s reflected in song selections that come from the R&B, quiet storm, and new jack swing scenes of the 1980s through the early 1990s—songs all too frequently ignored when questions of canon are considered. In their original iterations, these songs were cheerfully featherweight, assembled from the stiff synths and drum machines that were en vogue at the time. Their fizzy-pop vivacity is a big part of their charm, yet it’s easy for effervescence to scan as ephemerality. Ndegeocello’s key subversive flourish is to add weight to them, making spectral songs feel wholly embodied. A performance of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s bubbly “I Wonder if I Take You Home” trades the jittery loops of the original for the muscle and grit of live percussion, seeming to revel in the loudness of snares and the cavernous kick drum boom. At times the drums careen almost out of control, as if to flaunt the freedom found beyond the drum machine’s straight jacket. The song is proudly physical, but also bursting with ideas: It flirts with drum ‘n’ bass and reaches for hip-hop DJ effects, but ultimately settles into the sort of gnarled funk you might find on a D’Angelo album. Similarly, Ndegeocello adds ballast to Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April,” and without any radical retooling of the Parade arrangement. She shifts the focus from nimble piano playing to resonant guitars and bass, and the effect is to add considerable weariness and weight to the song, which is now and forever saddled with mortality, sorrow, and lamentation.

Much of Ventriloquism is played in the language of Americana or singer/songwriter fare, though Ndegeocello’s bass work ensures that each song maintains its sense of swing. Acoustic guitar and harmonica tropes have never wanted for respect within the pop canon, and Ndegeocello uses them not to legitimize these songs so much as shift the focus beyond the dated production choices to the strong bones that have always been there, just below the surface. She makes explicit something that’s often forgotten—that these songs were written as surely as any Bob Dylan or Neil Young original, and with a similarly canny sense of craft. George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” is played here, with layers upon layers of kitsch sanded away; Ndegeocello’s performance is an act of excavation not unlike what Dylan did on his Great American Songbook albums. Yet even in paring things down, she finds room for an entire universe of sound—cosmic keyboard swirls, call-and-response vocals, rattling hand percussion, and sick slabs of greasy guitar funk. Her take on TLC’s “Waterfalls” is even more radical: She performs it as an acoustic guitar ballad, allowing the wistful lyrics and cascading vocal lines speak for themselves.

Her tinkering with ideas of authenticity and “real” music, and the way they play out across questions of canon and culture, allow for backdoor explorations of other issues, like gender. On “Sensitivity,” Ralph Tresvant’s ode to kind-and-gentle manliness, Ndegeocello maintains the original masculine pronouns; singing in character may not be subversive in and of itself, but her decision to recast the song as an old soft-shoe shuffle certainly is, underscoring how antiquated the idea of decent, respectful manhood can seem. It’s a joyful performance, with synth squelches decorating the periphery and a parade of woodwinds stomping through the song’s bridge. Still, in the end, the record’s greatest illuminations come in moments of earnest clarity: Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” sounds skeletal and haunted here, a song stripped to the bone by time’s forward march; and “Tender Love,” originally by Force M.D.’s, is done in acoustic singer/songwriter mode, without any subversion built into its performance—just an offer of vulnerability and need. All of these songs and ideas happily co-exist on Ventriloquism, held together not only by their ideological underpinnings but also by the singer’s clear affection for this, her chosen canon. The album contains multitudes, and is fiercely original.

Another Mutilated World: A swan song from Joan Baez

On Whistle Down the Wind, intended as the curtain call of a legendary recording career, Joan Baez says goodbye—all the while acknowledging that it’s never quite that easy. Think of the poet Adam Zagajewski, who exhorts us to “praise the mutilated world.” And think of Mary Oliver, who writes: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” The songs on Whistle Down the Wind are love songs to a mutilated world and a beleaguered humanity, their weariness and valor resonating as much today as they would have at any given point in Baez’ recording life. But love songs they remain: In her trembling read of Anhoni’s “Another World,” a throbbing and delicate album highlight, Baez sounds like she’s stepping onto a train and already regretting her departure; she can’t articulate her search for a better world and a higher plane without rhapsodizing about this one. “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” she sighs, holding fast to the mortal world in all its ephemerality and imperfection, still the surest thing she’s ever known. Or, as Baez sings on the Tom Waits- and Kathleen Brennan-penned title song: “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave.”

Baez has spent her whole life hymning the mutilated world, and mutilated it will remain even once she sings her last. Maybe that’s what she means by titling the album after a gesture of transience; maybe it’s an acknowledgement that, after decades spent singing against war and desolation, she’s ending her recording career with a song called “I Wish the Wars Were Over,” because of course they’re not. But the record’s deep melancholy waters her hard-won hopefulness, weathered and in full bloom: Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction,” the closest this album gets to a jaunt, imagines the day when the walls of Jericho crumble, a camel passes through the eye of a needle, and the darkest hour gives way at last to dawn. Nobody said any of this would be easy, and so a Josh Ritter composition exhorts us to “Be of Good Heart.” That same song voices a humility born of experience: “I never claimed to know it all,” she sings, summarizing decades spent bearing witness. “All I know is what I’ve known.” And there is resilience, too. Waits’ “Last Leaf”—originally done as a barroom lament with soul survivor Keith Richards—is notably more forceful here. Baez imagines herself a leaf that’s weathered every winter since Eisenhower; she’ll make room for the new shoots of green, but she won’t let go—not yet.

The risk with an album like this—intended as a last will and testament, reckoning with a world that’s in roughly the same shambles she found it in—is austerity. It was produced by Joe Henry, who is singularly gifted at working with septa- and octogenarian artists to generate works that expand their legacies, rather than Cliff Note them. He and Baez address the concern of an insular and self-serious album by steering straight into it, laying all their cards on the table: There aren’t many jokes here and no song that qualifies as a lark; just song after song that burrows deep into earnestness and empathy. It earns our trust through its candor and its sincerity; its cumulative effect is total disarmament.

Whistle Down the Wind stands among the most genteel Joe Henry productions; his inclination toward first-take immediacy, which summoned elegant swing on his Allen Toussaint sessions and hard-boiled grit on his work with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, manifests here as gentleness. Drummer Jay Bellerose, whose rolling thunder is a hallmark of Henry’s production work, mostly offers gentle thumps and cymbal accents. Baez, John Smith, and Greg Leisz join acoustic guitars into a blur of finger-picked melody, while Patrick Warren’s piano and pump organ surface with crystalline romance. “Whistle Down the Wind” sounds at once earthy and windswept, born of this world but no longer tethered to it. “Another World” is skeletal and pulsing, Baez standing ragged and unsure at the song’s center.

She trusts the warmth and sadness of these songs to shine through, and they do. Baez sings with too much affection for any of these songs to lapse into cynicism, and too much weariness for any of them to sound like celebration. And so she is caught between this mutilated world and another, better one she can’t quite imagine; she’ll cling to this until she can’t, and then she’ll let go. In the meantime, Baez leaves us with a Zoe Mulford song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” set in the wake of the Charleston church shooting: “But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang Amazing Grace.” To sing in the face of sorrow is an amazing grace, indeed; a tender mercy that only a broken world can allow.

Bodies in Motion: Turnstile’s Time & Space, reviewed

time and space

Songs per minute seems as reasonable a metric as any for hardcore efficiency. On a ferocious new album called Time & Space, Turnstile barrels through 15 in 25, a breakneck pace where pummeling drums, molten riffs, and ragged screams race one other toward each song’s inevitable collapse.

It’s a record of jostling energy and considerable eclecticism, but you don’t have to look to its stylistic detours to get a sense of the band’s pancultural approach. Even the songs that rock more conventionally rock in all different directions: One of the best guitar moments is “Big Smile,” which starts as thrash ‘n’ roll before morphing into a punked-up Chuck Berry riff, only to spiral off in a flaming tailspin of harmony vocals and rattling tambourine. Those fleeting tastes of Chess Records aren’t the only time Turnstile invokes that old-time rock and roll, either; “High Pressure” signifies Little Richard and Jerry Lee through pounded keys and blazing speed. The atmospherics that open “Can’t Get Away” glisten like shoegaze, only to be obliterated by the album’s biggest, dumbest metal riffs. And for a band that never makes the rookie mistake of confusing volume for swing, it should come as no surprise that when they ditch singer Brendan Yates’ yowl for a melodic three-part harmony, as they do on “Moon,” the band’s pulverizing mayhem suddenly snaps into focus as scuzzy pop perfection. Forget the fact that Diplo shows up to enhance one of these tracks with his token bleeps and bloops, a gesture that’s not even among the top 10 biggest curveballs here: Turnstile is plenty eclectic all on their own, showing off countless ways of being loud, fast, and out of control.

Time & Space is so ruthlessly efficient that the mere presence of slow-downs—few and fleeting though they may be—feels dangerous. And yes, these respites offer further opportunity for the band to smuggle in some out-of-the-box ideas: Listen to how “Real Thing” opens with guitars that sound like revved engines, charging and careening through two clipped verses and a couple of anthemic choruses before smashing into an electric piano coda—the kind of loungey, half-ironic scene-changer that might pop up on an album by Flying Lotus or the Beastie Boys. More than being opportunities to ease into airy R&B or palate-cleansing electronics, these bite-sized breathers are critical to the record’s deliberate physicality; Turnstile’s brainy punks never forget that they’re making music for bodies, and Time & Space carries a natural ebb and flow between intense calisthenics and pulse-resetting cooldowns. Even the empty spaces are part of the album’s physical and ideological onslaught—punctuation marks that make the thrash seem thrashier, the rock more abrasive, and pacing both smarter and more daring.

Turnstile achieves a density of ideas through brevity and precision: Each of the record’s myriad small pleasures—whether punk swagger or stylistic variance—lasts a few seconds less than you wish it would, while the careful sequencing smooths out any kinks and curtails whiplash. The words are deployed with a similar deftness. “They want to take/ my right to be!” Yates howls toward the album’s end, ranting against an authoritarianism that need not be named; elsewhere, he’s “waiting for the real thing,” a sentiment that doesn’t need any concrete particulars to make it palpable. And on another, love descends “like a bomb on me.” Each line that rises above the din makes its mark, conjures something primal and identifiable, then recedes—narrative scaffolding for a blistering punk record that leverages thinky ideas to keep heads spinning and bodies in motion.