Lizz Wright - The Orchard (2008)

Lizz Wright
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There are few greater pleasures in life than hearing an album for the first time and losing oneself, completely, in the listening experience.  The music transports, inspires, invokes daydreams. There's a hope that other listeners will follow along on the journey and glean even a glimpse of what makes the music special. Such is the case with The Orchard, the delicious new disc by Lizz Wright.

Those unfamiliar with Wright's previous work, Salt (2003) and Dreaming Wide Awake (2005), needn't worry about dipping into this well of soulfully and exquisitely sung and produced songs. Producer Craig Street (Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Chocolate Genius) assures that even first-time listeners will be intoxicated by Wright's charms.

There are few greater pleasures in life than hearing an album for the first time and losing oneself, completely, in the listening experience.  The music transports, inspires, invokes daydreams. There's a hope that other listeners will follow along on the journey and glean even a glimpse of what makes the music special. Such is the case with The Orchard, the delicious new disc by Lizz Wright.

Those unfamiliar with Wright's previous work, Salt (2003) and Dreaming Wide Awake (2005), needn't worry about dipping into this well of soulfully and exquisitely sung and produced songs. Producer Craig Street (Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Chocolate Genius) assures that even first-time listeners will be intoxicated by Wright's charms. The musicians he's corralled together complement and draw out the strengths of the vocalist, never once upstaging her.  In fact, The Orchard is a very appropriate album title, for the combination of talent bears luscious fruit.

What is it about Lizz Wright's voice that transfixes so? To these ears, it's the patina of hard-won experience in her voice. She's young but sings from a core of someone who's lived many lifetimes. The interpretative and technical capabilities of her voice are a unique marriage. Wright wrings meaning from each syllable with a honeyed vibrato. Listen to how she phrases the title of "Hey Mann" -- "hey meh-he-eh-eh-nn-nn." Practitioners of the craft call it "nuance." Wright certainly knows how to work it, illuminating her stories with a sweet, soft glow. "Broken words fill my mouth," she sings on "Another Angel" (co-written with John Leventhal) but nothing could be further from the truth.  The way she caresses the lyrics --"What does it matter/Who really cares?"-could soften even the most stoic listener. 

Though Wright claims eight of the twelve writing credits on the album, her co-conspirator on the bulk of the material is Toshi Reagon. Their synergy has created some outstanding pieces. Traces of gospel ("My Heart") and rock ("Leave Me Standing Alone") infuse the storyboards of each song. "Song for Mia" boasts a characteristically gorgeous performance from Wright and "This Is" contains some of the album's more memorable rhythmic delights.

Even when tackling known material, Lizz Wright brings her inimitable touch to every note.  Particularly impressive is how she transforms Ike and Tina Turner's "I Idolize You" from a shrill plea to a seductive invitation. Street emphasizes the blues roots of the song, slowing the tempo down and giving Wright plenty of room to vamp.  Similarly, "Thank You" is momentarily stolen from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in the hands of Lizz Wright and Craig Street. 

With stellar albums from 2007 by Ledisi and Herbie Hancock already gracing the collections of music lovers the world over, Verve has yet another golden egg in the basket for 2008. It is not too early to announce that The Orchard is one of the most essential albums 2008. To celebrate, I'm hoping someone peers over my shoulder to ask what music is making me smile. I will gladly offer, "Lizz Wright, The Orchard...get it."

By Christian John Wikane

 
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