On its face, hitching Ledisi with Raphael Saadiq, Chucky Thompson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Ivan Barias and Carvin Haggins made perfect sense. Jam and Lewis and Raphael Saadiq were hitmakers known for creating musically dynamic, organic soul for everyone from Janet Jackson to D'Angelo, while Chucky Thompson (Faith, Mary J) and Ivan and Carvin (Musiq, Jill Scott) were renown for soft, seductive ballads and intricate mid-tempo arrangements that are the major classics of the 1990s through the early 2000s. Linking Ledisi to these legendary producers was sure to create the iconic album Ledisi has long deserved. The issue is that few of these producers have consistently created exciting and innovative material in quite some time, as evidenced by Jam and Lewis on Ruben Studdard's latest disappointment and Saadiq's recent pristine museum artifact album, The Way I See It. Instead, the expensive icons have consistently co-written and produced songs that are usually completely detached from the singer or her subjects.
Depending on the composition and the producer, there are times I don't believe Ledisi when she sings these songs. She is always beautifully voiced, but there is an audible disconnect between Ledisi's technically strong vocal interpretations and the late 60s/ early 70s retro-light productions like Thompson's "Everything Changes." For instance, on "Alone" Ivan and Carvin's blinding production seems completely at odds with its dark material. There is something strange and unsettling about having a song about loneliness musically expressing a brightness-without irony, mind you-that so strikingly conflicts with the seriousness of its subject. Conversely, Saadiq's bumping country accents on "Love Never Changes," a tune describing the unchanging nature of love, offers a low wattage aura that prevents the tune from rising off the ground, where more of the Philly team's bright awe and exuberance would have been in order.
The producers who hold up best on the project are Rex Rideout and Lorenzo Johnson, who appeared on Lost and Found, and the lesser known, hungrier production team of the Frye Dept. Rideout, who regularly produces Maysa, Lalah Hathaway and Will Downing with mixed smooth jazz results, consistently does his best work with Ledisi. He has a synergistic ease and understanding of Ledisi's voice that makes them a dynamic duo on the Hammond and drum powerhouse, "Turn Me Loose." The operatic moments on the current Rideout produced single, "Goin' Through Changes," and the soul-tugging drama of Ledisi's performance on Johnson's "The Answer To Why" are lessons in how to make fairly routine R&B slow drags and acoustic-guitar driven pop into personal testimonies of uncommon, soul searching beauty. Intuitively Rideout knows how to get out of the way of an unleashed Ledisi on Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and Buddy Miles "Them Changes," allowing her to take this classic material from a whisper to a rousing soul scream.
Like the storied musical courtship of Rideout and Ledisi, The Frye Dept. delivers the best marriage of music, composition, arrangement and voice for Ledisi on their star turns. The funk that is ever present in Ledisi's vocals is again allowed room to breathe under Adam Deitch and Adam Krasno. "Knockin'" and "Say No" are artifice free, grade A rhythm and blues. The duo's expert production makes checking out their other work a priority on this reviewer's to-do list.
The hit makers of old aren't all crash and burn. It's unexpected to hear neo-Philly soul producers Ivan and Carvin delve into the synth pop sub-genre with a jazz and funk diva like Ledisi, but the compelling track could hit -- it's certainly light years above the grating anthems driving Jennifer Hudson to the top of the charts. Saadiq also redeems himself on "Please Stay," the kind of lilting soul pop that The Corporation readily produced for the Jackson 5 on their first homeruns.
As is usually the case with Ledisi's work, when the producers get out of her way and the song allows her space, the work just shines. When this all boys club doesn't abdicate to her interpretive talents, especially on songs that feel too tightly constructed, the band too lethargic, or when the lyrics are unmemorable, the project's starpower notably dims. When Ledisi's voice is the only element making any of it make sense, making any cohesion of this material, her music becomes a frustrating work. Ledisi is a jazzy, funky, soulful powerhouse of an artist, so do what the album says and just turn her loose already! We think she's so much better that way. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson