Esperanza Spalding is the girl whose concert you do not go to with your boyfriend, if you are prone to jealousy. For those in need of directions for embroidering the voodoo doll, she is a caramel-skinned, long-legged, afro-clad, airy-voiced and indisputably talented American jazz bassist. And somehow, despite the Grammy award and the man-sized instrument, she has an expressive naturalness that makes her at once approachable and easily idolised.
To prove the theory, Google her performance of Lauryn Hill’s ‘Tell Me’ before listening to the newest addition to her oeuvre ‘Radio Music Society’. If you then succeed in reaching the end of the album without either falling in love, or clasping desperately green-eyed onto that dud rhyme in ‘Cinnamon Tree’, you are either: too intimidated to fall for a flawless woman, a chaste saint of a girlfriend, or a direct descendent of John Coltrane.
As the bitchy jealous listener variety, this reviewer has been zooming in at 200% and scanning the area for blackheads. Finding flaws in the album is difficult, because her voice never falters. ‘Radio Song’ is a worthy opener, with an intriguing blend of the familiar and unpredictable. A pop-jazz fusion that is characteristic of Esperanza at her best; catchy refrains that seem easily singable until you tap your foot along and realise it’s actually quite quirky.
‘Crowned & Kissed’ has a similar groovy funk-soul feel, with Esperanza in every layer of the vocals like little unhatable minions. At certain ranges, and in the more RnB number ‘Black Gold’ there are hints of a modest Beyoncé, but her style usually remains reminiscent of a soulful chorister, particularly in ‘Land of the Free’; carefully accompanied by Hammond organ and a well-placed break in the jumping bass-lines and brass fills of the rest of the album’s instrumentation.
However, close-up scrutiny does not help to pinpoint that crucial missing growl in all this prettiness. Though not lacking in eccentricity, it remains in many ways a lightweight album; quite tasty, but nevertheless noticeably low-calorie. It admirably resists pop predictability throughout, but on its journey away from the familiar forms it quotes it verges on the arbitrary. At times the production smells too strongly of the studio and the groove suffers from the faint aroma of that pizza the trumpeter probably ate just before he added his layer to the recording.
These are the moments where it wanders out of the jazz ensemble maintained beautifully in ‘Vague Suspicions’ and into the territory of more commercial music making. That being said, the album maintains a daydream-like quality throughout, so that songs often feel like melodies or bass-lines conceived instinctively in the shower and used as playthings for an ensemble of star-studded instrumentalists (Joe Lovano and Q-Tip, to name but a few) to jam on. Her composition and the music itself are impressive and admirable, but it often leaves you stroked and not entirely satisfied. Like a beguiling Bjork brainstorm the lyrics oscillate between being conversationally random or self-consciously lyrical, and it is often characterised by unusual musical ideas that are not entirely developed in a way that makes sense.
Overall the listening experience is certainly more than just beautiful, yet it falls short of being enthralling. Save the voodoo doll for the next album ladies…
Esperanza Spalding’s new album is available now.