India.Arie [Soulbird/Universal Republic] *** (3 STARS)
India.Arie has been very consistent in her nearly 10-year recording career. Starting with her double-platinum 2000 debut, Acoustic Soul, the multi-Grammy winner has doggedly made it her mission to only make music that uplifts and inspires. Sure, it's a noble effort. But too often her songs are insufferably wide-eyed and cheesy, especially for a woman past 30.
The trend of obvious lyrical observations and syrupy sentiments wrapped in Sesame Street-ready metaphors continues on her new album, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics. The CD, in stores today, boasts a nice lush sound. Strings and horns ebb and flow. Arie's sandy vocals breeze through it all - cascading over nimble acoustic guitar chords and caressing simple melodies. The production, overseen by the artist and Reen Nalli, is markedly richer and warmer than what was heard on her previous efforts. And Arie sounds more confident behind the mic.
But the new songs don't leave an immediate impression - nothing as insanely catchy as "Video," the singer's 2000 breakout hit, or "Little Things," the charmer from 2002's Grammy-winning Voyage to India. The R&B; element of Arie's sound has always been faint. Unlike her neo-soul contemporaries (Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Maxwell), Arie's style has always been folkish and almost completely devoid of funk, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
On the new album, Arie indulges her pop urges on "Therapy," one of the weakest cuts. Over a rudimentary programmed track, she compares her lover to a therapist: "He lays me on the couch and says/How has your day been?/Tell me your problems/I'll help you solve them."
Things get a little better on "Chocolate High," a duet with Musiq Soulchild, where Arie compares her man to (what else?) a chocolate bar. Though lyrically the song is lame, the swaying, sun-kissed arrangement makes it a standout. When she's not making songs out of journal entries, she tries her hand at interpretation. She covers Sade's starkly dramatic "Pearls." Arie speeds up the tempo and gives it a reserved reading, unlike Sade's soaring take. It doesn't supplant the original, but it works. After that, the album becomes preachy and forgettable.
Perhaps it's time for India.Arie to tweak her musical mission and loosen up a little.
Download these:: "Chocolate High," "Pearls," "Yellow"