A kaleidoscope of fresh female voices

The Baltimore Sun

I've always been partial to female artists.

Regardless of the genre, they generally give more heart and soul to the music. In the urban realm, women certainly lead the pack with fearless music that smartly synthesizes various influences, creating a sound that's fresh and distinct. Erykah Badu immediately comes to mind. Her latest CD, New Amerykah: Part 1 (4th World War), is a murky, politically charged effort that brilliantly turns hip-hop and modern soul inside out.

On the playlist this week, we check out three ambitious female newcomers - Santogold, Adama and Esperanza Spalding - who strive to dissolve style barriers.

Santogold, self-titled: This Philly native, born Santi White, worked a 9-to-5 job for a while as an artist and repertoire rep at Epic Records. But she couldn't resist her muse. So she left that gig to write and produce How I Do, the overlooked, category-defying 2000 debut by alt-pop singer Res, White's childhood friend. After that, the singer-songwriter formed Santogold.

Like Sade and Cat Power, Santogold is a band directed by the vision of its female focal point. And White's direction is all over the place on the self-titled debut. Though rooted in '80s punk and new wave, the kaleidoscopic album often shifts tones and textures that borrow from reggae, electronica and hip-hop.

The musical mutations - in which White's metallic voice is sometimes cleverly manipulated like another instrument - are mostly intriguing, if a bit noisy. With dissonant concoctions like "Creator," she is sure to draw comparisons to MIA. "I'm a Lady," a fine, swaggering '80s-rock tune Debbie Harry could have recorded, is probably the most straightforward number on the 12-song album. Elsewhere, White infuses punk with artful, rainbow-splattered touches.

Adama, Delicate Dragon: Born to a Cornish father and a Nigerian mother, Adama grew up on the rough outskirts of London. As a child, she gravitated toward music and martial arts. While in high school, she became the kung-fu champion of the U.K. and represented her country in a competition in Hong Kong.

After college, the 20-something artist decided to pursue her early dreams of music. Delicate Dragon, Adama's debut, is probably the weakest album on the playlist. As a vocalist, she's flat and colorless. But she writes memorable melodies, and her lyrics are sometimes smart. The best cut is "The Moment," a self-motivating number whose sleek, muscular groove sounds suspiciously like "Paradise," Sade's No. 1 R&B; hit from 1988. With such a blah voice, perhaps Adama should consider writing for others. She shows more promise in that area. Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza: While growing up in Portland, Ore., where Spalding was mostly home-schooled because of a lengthy illness, the jazz artist discovered on her own that she was musically gifted. Spalding was about 5 years old when she saw Yo Yo Ma on an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Soon afterward, she taught herself to play violin. The girl played it so well that she landed a spot in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a community orchestra for children and adults. She stayed with the group for a decade, eventually advancing to a concertmaster position.

But by 16, Spalding had discovered a new instrument: the bass. She quickly mastered that, too. When she turned 20 in 2005, she earned a degree in music from Berklee College of Music and joined the faculty as an instructor, becoming the school's youngest teacher. Now, three years later, Spalding is focusing exclusively on her music.

Her debut on the Heads Up/Concord label is a highly accessible jazz album, heavy on groove and shades of Afro-Latin swing. The warm, organic feel of the record reminds me of the sounds that emanated from the Prestige and Blue Note labels in the mid-'70s - sans the wah-wah guitar and Fender Rhodes. Even the throwback cover shot of the smiling, gloriously Afro'd artist looks as if it were taken in 1975.

But the music on Esperanza, which is Spanish for "hope," isn't exactly retro. It's not very progressive, either. However, it is a mostly pleasant album, showcasing a promising artist. Spalding's sunny, melodic voice (shades of Flora Purim) is as prominent throughout the breezy 12-cut CD as her deft bass playing. Spalding's lyrics, however, are at times wince-inducing. Check out this line: "We can't rush what belongs to the heavens above." Also, she has yet to develop much of an emotional range. But still, she's somebody to watch.


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