City Paper is not for tourists
In the post-Mary J. Blige world of sonic underachievement, attitude has damn near supplanted technical skill, and athletic vocals have replaced an understanding of the black musical tradition. Whereas soul luminaries like Otis Redding and Bobby Womack cultivated a deliberate rawness originating in the blues, the New Jack Sirens of Destiny’s Child and TLC literally miss the point with their saccharine stylings, flatulent notes, and lyrics torn from the Terry McMillan catalogue of black-male misbehavior.
Amel Larrieux, formerly one-half of urban pop duo Groove Theory, echoes a whole ‘nother era, a time when an artist needed more than a weave and an attitude to get over. Though D’Angelo, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Maxwell, and newcomer Angie Stone have collectively created a soul revival, aka progressive R&B, Larrieux brings an even older tradition to the fore on Infinite Possibilities. Larrieux is a straight-up jazz vocalist. From the opening note of the funk-suffused affirmation “Get Up” to the last drifting sigh of the sublime ballad “Make Me Whole,” it’s clear that she’s put in her time at the table of elders Vaughn, Fitzgerald, and Carter.
By turns smoky and ethereal, the vocals Larrieux lays down on her debut release come off as a seamless blend of tradition and innovation, reverence for her musical forebears and brassy aesthetic independence. By her own account, Larrieux’s musical genealogy includes everyone from Bobby McFerrin to Jimi Hendrix to Ahmad Jamal and Soul II Soul. But to her credit, though you can detect her influences throughout Infinite Possibilities, she never recycles someone else’s sound wholesale.
Larrieux is probably the only one of her vocalist cohorts to fuse a jazz sensibility with contemporary, basement-brewed funk and a subcurrent of hiphop and actually pull it off. To dig just how far ahead of the aesthetic curve she is, just take a tour through the wasteland of catchphrases and banalities that is contemporary R&B. Though it’s hard to believe, Larrieux is of the same generation as the “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “No Scrubs” set, but she wisely forgoes such boulevard populism. Infinite Possibilities is all about love minus the scar tissue, about travails and the bliss of transcendence.
On cuts like “Sweet Misery,” singing “You say that you love me/That I’m the only one/But what you call monogamy/Is lying to everyone,” Larrieux comes off as a deep-blue soul dissecting the nature of love gone wrong. Near the tail end of this track, Larrieux drops a gorgeous set of scat phrases over a subtle, dissolving cymbal as if to show that she’s got the jazz-vocal thing down cold. Contrast this bit of afterburn with the melancholy of her pointed social lament “Searchin’ My Soul,” and it becomes apparent that Larrieux is a soothsayer both vocally and lyrically, prematurely wise in the ways of the world and here to deliver her testimony.
On the gospel minimalist standout “Even If,” she delivers a nod to Marvin Gaye’s “If I Should Die Tonight” and nearly brings you to tears singing, “[I]f the whole world’s turned to stone/And my God says it’s time I take you home/I’ll be happy goin’, knowing that I loved you.” But it’s not until the kinetic, bass-driven “Down” that Larrieux puts all her musical cards on the table. The cross-fertilized jazz ballad/funk-party jam defies all the conventions of current pop; Larrieux virtually purrs her way through the seductively phrased soliloquy about a love habit that needs to be kicked.
The disappointments on Infinite Possibilities are few, though the title track, ironically enough, lacks the fluidity that defines so many of the other songs. The growling two-note bass foundation murmurs throughout its duration but never reaches epiphany. Larrieux saves the track from complete failure, though, with her light, syncopated vocals. And by way of exit, she delivers “Make Me Whole,” defined by her wispy vocals and a tranquil, drifting background piano, an evocative hymn that will leave you misty in its wake. CP