Recommend if you like: Hiatus Kaiyote, Joni Mitchell, Tortoise, Primus
Expectation: Esperanza Spalding made a name for herself as a critically beloved jazz artist, winning the 2011 Grammy award for Best New Artist (becoming the first jazz artist ever to do so) and garnering consistent critical acclaim for her first 4 solo-albums. This record marks Spalding 5th studio effort, as well as a musical departure, as Spalding diverges into the territory of rock, funk, neo-soul, and fusion.
- Good Lava – Rocked out funk-jazz fusion. The guitars are riff-heavy, the vocal melodies pull from neo-soul, and the modality dances on the brink of dissonance. Its all pulled together by Spalding’s effortless confidence that never wavers, even as the instrumentals twist and turn beneath her.
- Unconditional Love – A neo-soul instrumental backing up a sweet, simple pop melody. The interaction of these two central elements leave the track feeling more like R&B than anything, but its very well done.
- Judas – The high, fluttering vocal moments peppered throughout the track will catch anyone’s ear, and the central groove remains engaging without distracting from Spalding’s message.
- Earth to Heaven – A rock chorus framed by folksy verses that sound reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s earlier work and a variety of unpredictable bridges.
- One – I don’t love the intro, but Spalding connects it to the rest of the song masterfully. The melody is less effortless and pleasing than other tracks, but its still an interesting track.
- Rest In Pleasure – Spalding’s experiments wander into post-rock territory, with jangling guitars and a conglomerate of juxtaposed rhythmic elements reminiscent of Tortoise backing her soulful vocals.
- Ebony and Ivy – Parts of this song have a folksy melody, folksy lyrics, and the same indescribable instrumental style as the rest of the album, yet somehow it still works. Its as if Spalding can brute force any idea she has into inexplicably being a good one.
- Farewell Dolly – Not a bad track, but short and uneventful in comparison with the rest of the album, almost like an interlude.
- Elevate or Operate – An incredibly elaborate instrumental track to set up a melody that is implacably familiar, bordering on nostalgic. Regardless, another great track.
- Funk the Fear – Alternating between a dark, intricate riff that sounds like it came straight from Incubus’s Fungus Amongus and a smooth, funky groove, this song is a delicate balancing act between polar opposite tones, but it accomplishes its goal excellently.
- I Want It Know – Several songs on this album bear hints of a resemblance to song cycles by composers such as John Corigliano, but only here would I venture to suspect a true influence by them. Spalding’s twisting and contorting vocal melody tells as much of the story as her lyrics do, and the composition is as intricate as ever.
Overall: Compositionally, this may be the strongest release of 2016. The balance of funk, jazz, soul, rock, pop, and R&B is incredibly delicate, as the sound never truly fits into just 1 or 2 of those categories. Even more impressive is the immediacy of the music; despite the intense complexity of the compositions, the songs here are immediately engaging, sometimes even catchy. The instrumental performances from Spalding and her band are stellar, in particular the drumming from famed jazz/hip hop drummer Karriem Riggins and the guitar work from studio musician Matthew Stevens stand out, though Spalding’s own bass guitar and vocals are not to be ignored. The only gripe I take with this album is a difficult one to explain: I do not feel that this music will be remembered. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve to be remembered, but I myself had already stopped listening to this album a few months ago before returning to it now. Spalding’s songs are incredibly complex, but lack the certain intangible quality that makes a song stick in the mind of the listener. Nevertheless, its a great album and I hope we here more from her in the future.