Meshell Ndegeocello Gets Crafty on “Weather”

“Weather” isn’t the first Meshell Ndegeocello single to fall into the category of “freak folk,” but the album of the same name (Naive) is her first that can be comfortably filed under that genre. Classical and country elements have often enhanced Ndegeocello’s melding of jazz, rock, global funk and hip-hop; since 1993, her live shows have included acoustic string cameos and interludes. She used banjo loops and a harmonica on the jazz instrumental “Luqman” in 2005, and made Chris Bruce play country banjo over flanged keyboard pads and vocals on 2009’s “Crying in Your Beer.”

Even when making Cookie — arguably the smartest r&b album of the ’00s — in 2002, she borrowed ideas from ’70s jazz-fusion pioneers who embraced trippy instrumentation and augmented harmonies as much as today’s freak folk vanguard. And although Weather Report and Return to Forever are the first groups I think about whenever Ndegeocello gets spacey and psychedelic in the studio, retro-hippie Prince efforts like Around the World in a Day are equally important reference points. While Ndegeocello might be a far less mellow multi-instrumentalist and spiritual seeker than, say, Sufjan Stevens, if there’s any justice, the 13 elegant arrangements on Weather should attract a big chunk of his target audience.

Under the shrewd production of Joe Henry (Bettye Lavette, Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke) the title track of Meshell’s ninth album wraps the goofy sweetness of “Raspberry Beret” (and a hint of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) in layers of reverb and distortion. Similarly, “Feeling for the Wall” brings together contemplative lyrics and a waltz-time melody worthy of either Leonard Cohen or George Harrison, then adds a string section that’s full of te vaguely optimistic gravitas favored by New Weird America’s pop-rock contingent. (If Bon Iver can croon like Neil Young over French horns and steel guitar, then why can’t Ndegeocello get away with the sly Bryan Ferry homage hidden within “Chance”?)

And why did it take an unexpected cover of “Chelsea Hotel” to make me recognize how much Cohen and Ndegeocello share the same muse? (The devastating piano ballad “Oysters” only underscores the comparison.) As poets they mirror each other in melancholy, mysticism, and perversity; as singers they use their lower register for both incantatory seduction and irony. Both also know how to sound weird and catchy at the same time, although Meshell doesn’t always deign to be hummable! Tunes like “A Bitter Mule” and “Crazy and Wild” are surprisingly hooky for avant-garde material. Not only does Meshell often resist hummability, she also likes to scare radio with lyrics that reveal more about politics and sexuality than the FCC’s comfort level allows.

In the two years leading up to the five day basement-studio session that produced Weather, Meshell and her band toured festivals in Europe and nightclubs in the States. What does it say about her career agenda that her two most recent New York club dates were SRO tribute concerts? In 2010 she came to Joe’s Pub to salute her Dylan surrogate Gil Scott-Heron; this summer she packed the Highline Ballroom while performing hallucinatory interpretations of Prince’s repertoire. In other cities her gigs included covers of Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack and Terence Trent D’Arby, each of whom has tunes that could become the genetic seed of a recombinant freak-folk project. Which may be exactly what Ndegeocello’s move in this direction implies. After all, in 2009 the single “Slaughter” had her toying with the hush and thrash early ’90s rock, while “Die Young” was a collision between Weather Report and King Crimson. And was “Mass Transit” a wink at Traffic?

Freak-folk’s beauty lies in the way that it celebrates such unexpected comparisons; the genre encourages the same creative risks and odd mergers that have pushed Ndegeocello’s music into the commercial margins for decades. With Weather, Ndegeocello shows how she’s poised to follow Animal Collective down the rabbit hole and into a promised land of greater musical freedom. It’s not that she wouldn’t think to blend the Beach Boys, Penguin CafĂ© Orchestra and Phillip Glass — it’s just that she has a longer, more melanated list of artists to use as source material.

Meshell Ndegeocello performs at Hiro Ballroom on Wednesday night.

Published in: Village Voice Blogs, November 15, 2011