Whenever people who know a lot about music are struggling to describe what an album sounds like, that is a positive sign -- at least from an artistic standpoint (as opposed to a strictly commercial or marketing standpoint). Formulaic, cookie-cutter albums are easy to describe and easy to categorize because the person doing the describing has already heard a ton of similar albums. But if the album is difficult to describe and difficult to categorize, that indicates that the artist is striving for originality and isn't afraid to take chances. Singer/producer Percy Howard's A Pleasant Fiction is that type of album. If one plays this 52-minute CD (which was originally released in 2004 and reissued in late 2009) for five different people, it is likely to be categorized five different ways. Perhaps the most accurate description is "avant-garde rock with elements of soul, blues, and avant-garde jazz." Leading his group the Meridiem Project, Howard is clearly going for both abstraction and bluesy soulfulness. The performances are, in fact, soulful, but they are also cerebral, abstract, dissonant, and left of center. As R&B-minded as A Pleasant Fiction is, there is no way that one is going to hear "Chase the Blues Away" (an unlikely remake of the Tim Buckley song), "Melting" or "Carlotta" on an urban contemporary station alongside Usher, Beyoncé Knowles, R. Kelly, or Alicia Keys -- the performances are way too eccentric for that. But then, Howard obviously wasn't trying to be commercial. This is soulfulness for the Knitting Factory crowd; A Pleasant Fiction is soulfulness for Nina Simone fans who can also appreciate James Blood Ulmer, Sun Ra, Ann Dyer, and Betty Carter. Howard and his Meridiem Project have delivered an excellent album that yields major rewards, but only for those who can accept Howard's experimentation on its own daring terms.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson