APR 2002

The politics of the popular-music business clearly showed its head at this year’s Grammy Awards. Two worthy artists were vying for New Female artists: Alicia Keys and India Arie. When the winner was called, Alicia Keys walked away with the award (and five others) while India Arie was shut out. I’m convinced that the reason Keys won was not that her work—the strong and ubiquitous Songs in A Minor—was so much better than Arie’s Acoustic Soul. It isn’t. Instead it was because of the power and major push on the Grammy voters supplied by Clive Davis, the long-time music power broker who runs Keys’ label, J-Records.

It’s a shame that a talented artist like Keys got the nod based in part on the political maneuverings of her label. Don’t get me wrong; although Keys’ Songs in A Minor is a bit uneven, it is a solid work, very listenable and pleasant with some utterly outstanding tunes ("Fallin’" and "Jane Doe") which I’m sure had some major influence on the Grammy voters. But to be frank, a "pleasant" work shouldn’t cut it. I’ll take "interesting" over "pleasant" any day. And India Arie’s Acoustic Soul, at the very least, is interesting.

India Arie   Acoustic Soul   61:20

What makes Acoustic Soul so strong is the stylistic breadth of the work. While clearly in the R&B genre, replete with smooth vocals, a swimming sultry feel, and grooves reminiscent of her acknowledged influences, Billie Holiday and Donny Hathaway, there are also reggae rhythms, modern hip-hop production qualities and some deep, funky lyricism in this exceptional work. Strong tunes include: the reggae-tinged song she performed on the Grammy telecast, the superb "Video"; the slow, sensually funky "Brown Skin"; the decidedly modern-sounding, Latin-tinged "Strength, Courage, & Wisdom"; the beautifully compelling "Back to the Middle"; and the sonically-interesting "I See God In You". Each of these reveals a different side of Arie’s aesthetic response and lyrical disposition. In the end, the composite formed by this recording is more than interesting. It is a record that grabs and holds and takes you far beyond the "pleasant".

Rufus Wainwright   Poses   53:19

I love a recording that immediately grabs you as soon as that needle hits the groove, ...er, laser shines off the aluminum. Because of Rufus Wainwright’s searing yet controlled operatic tenor, his proclivity towards literate satirical imagery, the use of strong musical and production contributors (Teddy Thompson, son of guitar wizard Richard Thompson, Alex Gifford of Propellerhead, and Sarah McLachlin’s producer, Pierre Marchand) this recording is an exquisite balance of music and sound. At one moment this recording is subtle and delicate ("In a Graveyard"), in the next it is powerful and lush (the incredible "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk") leaving the listener breathless. Quite a heady total experience.

The title song, "Poses", sends chills down my spine. The music is sophisticated and mature, but when Wainwright hits his upper register, the vocal power of Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison come clearly to mind—Rufus can flat out sing! But this recording is not just a demo for vocal prowess. "California" shows his funny satirical pop-tune side. Rufus’ natural folk lyricism comes through on his faithful rendering of "One Man Guy" by his father, Loudon Wainwright III. All of these tunes show Rufus Wainwright to be one of the strongest and most fascinating vocalists/musicians on the scene today. This work does not disappoint.

Martin Sexton   Wonder Bar   47:47

Martin Sexton’s voice is gritty and sexy. His up-tempo folk gospel music combines the stylistic prowess of a growling Van Morrison and a falsetto-laced Al Green with a hint of Bruce Springsteen’s braggadocio. His songs are lyrical while addressing roots and country music themes, which clearly reveal his heart on his shirtsleeve. The musical mood is sparsely supplied by organ riffs and rock guitar licks played over supportive background ooo’s and ah’s, which all lead to an unpretentious authenticity that puts Sexton at the head of his musical class.

The opening tune, "Angeline", could easily come from a southern rural church, complete with hand-clapping joyous rockin’ sentiments. His "Faith on the Table" is smoky, up-tempo and reminiscent of the Worcester, Massachusetts bar it was composed in. "Where Did I Go Wrong with You" is a classic modern folk tune, a beautiful ballad that showcases Sexton’s extraordinary vocal range and great sense of melody. The rhythmically sophisticated "She Cries and Sings" is a lyrical masterpiece, while "Hallelujah" is a sardonic gospel-rocker showcase.

Every time I listen to this wonderful recording I hear something new: a guitar riff, a neat call and response phrase, a humorous ironic lyric, an exceptional music hook. I would recommend this recording to all. R

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