Ra Re Valverde - A Beautiful Mess (2007)

Ra Re Valverde
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It's always interesting to review an artist who willfully chooses not to color within the lines. You never know whether or not the colors will end up staining the carpet causing an unforgivable mess or will a strange symmetry emerge from the chaos to create a thing of rare, unexpected beauty. Renowned back-up singer and songwriter for Jill Scott, Trina Broussard and Rahsaan Patterson, Ra-Re Valverde achieves the latter on her esoteric debut, A Beautiful Mess. A Kandinsy painting, this vibrant album bridges several different musical genres to create an eclectic listening experience. For the risk adverse music buyer, there are enough tuneful primary colors artfully assembled on A Beautiful Mess to produce easy smiles and reassuring head nods to keep you plugged in through the more abstract landscapes. That said, there are no kitschy dogs playing three-card poker in Ra-Re's gallery of promising musical portraits.

It's always interesting to review an artist who willfully chooses not to color within the lines. You never know whether or not the colors will end up staining the carpet causing an unforgivable mess or will a strange symmetry emerge from the chaos to create a thing of rare, unexpected beauty. Renowned back-up singer and songwriter for Jill Scott, Trina Broussard and Rahsaan Patterson, Ra-Re Valverde achieves the latter on her esoteric debut, A Beautiful Mess. A Kandinsy painting, this vibrant album bridges several different musical genres to create an eclectic listening experience. For the risk adverse music buyer, there are enough tuneful primary colors artfully assembled on A Beautiful Mess to produce easy smiles and reassuring head nods to keep you plugged in through the more abstract landscapes. That said, there are no kitschy dogs playing three-card poker in Ra-Re's gallery of promising musical portraits.

When Black music is this askew from the jazz and gospel centers of R&B, one is motivated to listen with a more open ear to pay it the proper respect. Though Ms. Valverde has sung alongside artists with more traditional soul approaches to music, Ra-Re's material falls into a category of ambient and electronica influenced artists such as Musinah and Georgia Anne Muldrow (but with measurably better vocals). In this genre, notes and lyrics are sacrificed for sound and atmosphere, a convention A Beautiful Mess does occasionally yield to with mostly favorable results. While I generally appreciate the artistic outcomes of Ra-Re's sound, I do not always understand the production decisions to heavily mask her voice with effects, given Ms. Valverde's fine set of vocal chops and clear lyrical abilities. Her own best background vocalist, Ra-Re ranks as one of the best vocal overdubbing singers in the business. Thankfully, there are breaks from the boastful production techniques where both singer and song are unencumbered by distortions allowing listeners to enjoy her virgin talent.

There are the times when this audible bird of beauty maintains a steady glide through the comforting clouds of radio friendly material as on "Superhero," "All The Things"and "Outside The Box" (which ironically has the least "out the box" melody of this set). There are times it takes an unanticipated ascent into the stratosphere where the air is thin and sweet such as "Til U Come Home" and "Girlfriend." One also observes a moment or two when the bird becomes disoriented from all the radio waves and begins to crash into the earth from its lofty heights, the indulgences in "Complicated" are an example.

The innovations on A Beautiful Mess come in its brave incorporations of musical instruments foreign to contemporary R&B and a mind-numbing knack for making disparate sounds congeal. Snare drums meets the sitar and bansuri on the hothouse exoticism of "Til U Come Home." A bicycle bell accents astral sound effects on "Be With U." On "ABM Outro" a cowbell keeps the tempo on a composition that's little more than guitar riffs and simulated industrial machine effects supporting an inquisitive chant. Congas, vibraphones, steel guitars, meditative prayer calls, even submersion sounds of underwater breathing on the baptismal "Girlfriend" all find a home on A Beautiful Mess.

The daring of A Beautiful Mess is also in its compositional flourishes. Both "Girlfriend" and "RV Intermission" reveal a repeated willingness to have the song progression hug and then release or reprise elements of other music styles after a few memorable bars. While the foundation is consistently one of soul meets space ambience like on the innocently vulnerable "Do I (4 Daddy)," textured hues of pop, folk, 80's new age, be-bop horns, Chicago house, and acoustic rock pop up throughout this set of unusual songs. Even on a relatively straightforward R&B cut like the Peter Hadar duet "Love Will" there are hints of harp, synth effects, and a funky electric guitar (whose chords and harp interplay are incredibly reminiscent of Heatwave's classic "Star of the Story"), but the steady march of the drum creates a tension that pushes the tune past R&B into a light drum and bass romp. Like Moby or the Gnarls Barkley collaboration, this weaving of musicianship, music history and electronically driven production is worthy of serious study.

Ra-Re writes heartfelt lyrics of sultry vulnerability about love and relationships. She has a smooth alto, but in her style and phrasing she isn't Jill Scott. Her voice layers lovely in doubles, harmony and counterpoint, but she's not Trina Broussard. She might be a female Rahsaan, but even Patterson didn't get really adventurous with sound until Wine and Spirits. Her attempt at Erykah Badu's Worldwide Underground experimentation on "Complicated" didn't find a sympathetic ear here, but maybe that's because Ra-Re doesn't have to make any Erykah allusions to be considered a maverick. She is already distinctly, chaotically Ra-Re, the mother of A Beautiful Mess, an asymmetrically beautiful thing. Highly recommended.

-L. Michael Gipson

 
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