The CDs on this week's playlist offer mostly refined, smoothed-out approaches to pop, soul and fusion. One artist streamlines her exotic style, while another uses a bitter breakup as inspiration for his debut. One pays a vapid tribute to his musically rich hometown, as another introduces her fiery sound to the mainstream.
Zap Mama, Supermoon --Marie Daulne, the one-woman musical global village best known as Zap Mama, highly polishes her approach on this meandering CD. Sure, she still mingles an array of sounds -- worldbeat, James Brown-inspired funk, a touch of lounge jazz -- and an African rhythmic pulse supports it all. But the overproduced tracks nearly obliterate Zap Mama's raw, spell-casting, onomatopoeic vocals.
Whereas on previous releases the focus was on her vocal artistry, Supermoon is more about the groove. And that isn't a bad thing. It's just that after a while, the album starts to melt into the background. The first cut, "1,000 Ways," is a standout with its strutting rhythm, bright vocal layers and buzzing atmospheric synths. "Kwenda" will make you want to get up and move your groove thing as the fat funk rhythm chugs along, accented by serpentine saxophone lines. But the album as a whole is a disjointed listen.
Emerson Hart, Cigarettes & Gasoline --I'm not really sold on Hart's thin vocals, but the former lead singer for Tonic is a talented songwriter. And this CD, his solo debut, ripples with strong, memorable tunes. It's something of a concept album as the songs explore a breakup. Lyrically, the New Jersey native is mature and self-reflective. Check this line from the catchy kiss-off "If You're Gonna Leave": Maybe I'm a liar in disguise/Maybe I'm angry/'Cause I'm the one who's always wrong/Maybe I'm not the one who's so strong.
Musically, the record is immaculately produced radio candy -- surging choruses underscored by pensive piano and charging electric guitars. Hart isn't breaking new ground here, but he has managed to turn out an energetic album whose smart, introspective lyrics take a refreshingly clear-eyed look at the end of a love affair.
Christian Scott, Anthem --A melancholic mood pervades the sophomore release from this Grammy-nominated trumpeter. As on his debut, 2006's Rewind That, Scott doesn't stay in a jazz bag per se. He blows over music that borrows elements from rock, hip-hop and soul. Unfortunately, Anthem, which was produced by Scott and Chris Dunn, suffers from the same problem that made his debut such a boring listen: None of the songs coalesce, and the trumpeter's solos are mostly dull and diffused. The album is supposed to pay tribute to the artist's hometown of New Orleans, post Hurricane Katrina. At times, the arrangements are too noisy (e.g. "Dialect") and leave little room for Scott to stretch out. Other times, the music is just bloodless (the aptly titled "Void"). It's clear that the guy has skills. But he has yet to make an album that imaginatively showcases them.
Ledisi, Lost & Found --Ledisi is The Truth, a singer whose intense, jazz-inflected style seemingly springs from a pure, inspired place. She is also one of the most dynamic live performers I've seen.
After more than a decade on the underground soul circuit, the Oakland, Calif.-raised singer-songwriter has finally released her major-label debut on Verve. As to be expected from Ledisi, who co-produced the album with Collin Stanback, the songs are emotional, down-to-earth explorations of romantic and spiritual love.
Vocally, she's expressive with wails evoking the second coming of Chaka Khan. However, the production throughout is surprisingly subdued. Her indie albums -- 2001's Soulsinger and 2002's Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue -- crackled with inspired live instrumentation. They were fine representations of her live act. Well-suited for urban adult radio, Lost & Found features mostly programmed approximations of organic soul. Highlights include "Alright," a breezy pick-me-up with a lovely melody that lingers long after the song is over, and "Upside Down," a pleasant taste of the roof-raising funk Ledisi delivers on stage. Mostly engrossing but tentative in spots, Lost & Found is still a solid introduction to the mainstream. Ledisi is definitely somebody to keep on your radar.