WHEN I call Lizz Wright in New York City, where the singer-songwriter is booked for a club date, I'm straight up with her. "Listen," I say, softening the edges of my voice a little. "I wasn't feelin' your album. Not at all."
"Thanks for being honest about it," the artist says, her voice calm and inviting, much like her music. "It is really different from the first."
"Yeah. But the more I got into it, I opened up to it. It wasn't what I expected. No lie, though: It's beautiful, Lizz."
"Really? Thank you."
I'm sure many folks who dug Wright's 2003 heralded debut, Salt, may be taken aback by the direction of her sophomore effort, Dreaming Wide Awake, which hit stores Tuesday. Unlike its predecessor, the new record is much starker, slower, creating a drifting, dreamlike feel as it plays on. With production by Craig Street, the man behind Meshell Ndegeocello's underappreciated 1999 masterstroke, Bitter, and the spare, folksy recordings of Cassandra Wilson, the album eschews the urban, smooth jazz leanings of Salt. The arrangements on Dreaming are minimal, slow-brewing and usually anchored by guitar.
"I wanted to make a record that's a story and a moment, not just singing," says Wright, who performs her new material at Rams Head Tavern on Sunday night. "I told [Street] I wanted to do something closer to the music I listen to: Damien Rice, Ryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan."
Salt, with its muscular grooves and jazzy soul touches, suggested Randy Crawford and Oleta Adams. Adult urban radio embraced cuts like "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly" and the stirring rendition of "Home" from The Wiz. But I doubt you're gonna hear selections from Dreaming on stations that play Kem or Jill Scott every 10 minutes. The new set is too haunting and meditative -- like a gospel-inflected and far less boring Norah Jones. (Jones' writer, Jesse Harris, co-penned the resonating "Hit the Ground" with Wright and composed the album's bittersweet last tune, "Without You.")
"I've always been a sucker for ballads, anyway," says the 25-year-old Georgia native. "Inside the album, I find that darkness is worth exploring. I like the idea of going to unfamiliar places musically and being surprised. I don't think the record is melancholy. I think it's low-key and loving. It's like reading a story the way the songs are sequenced."
That story is indeed one about love: its strange dimensions, the sweet and sour points, the epiphanies that come along the way. To spin this tale of quiet passion, self-discovery and evolution, Wright drew from various musical bags, seamlessly marrying tunes associated with Neil Young ("Young Man"), Herb Albert's Tijuana Brass ("A Taste of Honey") and the Youngbloods ("Get Together"). Those songs and the nine others of Dreaming are rendered in a smoky, rural style tinted with pastel blues. My personal favorites are Track 5, the evocative, rose-petal soft "I'm Confessin'," and Track 11, the darkly poetic title cut, which Wright wrote.
"I'm happy with the acoustic music because it frees up the voice and allows so much color and animation," she says. "I'm so interested in experiencing the stories in the music."
Dreaming, the singer says, is a truer reflection of who she is. In the two years since the debut dropped, Wright has made a few important changes. She switched management, and she left Brooklyn, which is where she lived the last time we talked two summers ago. These days, the peaceful-eyed beauty calls Seattle home.
"I never got used to New York," Wright says. "The tension was just too much. It felt too much like the road. I had to be close to nature, and I wasn't ready to go back to Atlanta. I'm learning to make myself at home with myself, you know, because I'm always on the road. It's like living inside a river; everything around me is so fluid."
Although Wright's astonishingly mature approach suggests otherwise, the daughter of a preacher man isn't well-versed in styles other than traditional gospel and chorale music. Only in the past three years or so has the singer immersed herself in the blues, indie rock, jazz, folk -- sounds that have informed both her albums.
"I like not knowing about all these different styles because there's this real sense of discovery for me," the singer says. "I believe music isn't definable. In the realm of music, labels don't mean much, anyway. I feel like a child just playing. "
For those initially thrown off by the sparse, stripped sound of the new record, be patient. Rewards await you.
"It was difficult to step out and follow my ideas," Wright says. "You have to really trust your art and yourself. You have to allow yourself to be who you really are."
See Lizz Wright at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, Sunday night at 7. Tickets are $35. For more information, visit www.ramsheadtav ern.com or call 410-268-4545.