Seen, the third album from New York singer/songwriter Morley, is one of those rare cases where familiar elements -- contemporary folk-soul and jazz, Americana, adult pop and rock -- are far more than their genres suggest. While her previous records had elements of what is on display here, they didn't come close to this wealth. Produced by Jay Newland and Jean-Philippe Allard, and co-produced by the artist, the set features 14 songs either written or co-written by Morley. Her list of collaborators includes former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on guitars and pedal steel, bassist Fred Cash, guitarist Robin Macatangay, and drummers Shawn Pelton and Rocky Bryant to name a few, and her guest list includes guitarist Leni Stern, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, bassist Richard Bona, and accordionist Gil Goldstein. But Morley's gifts are merely underscored by her partners here; it's her songs that hold the real depth of her gift.
There are a number of love songs here, such as the sad waltz "Somebody New" that, thanks in part to the pedal steel, kisses the backdrop of country music's golden years without sounding in the least bit nostalgic. It's simply the best frame for Morley 's words and aching meld of jazz phrasing in her big throaty contralto, open-hearted desire, and unselfconscious (and non-self-pitying) loneliness: "...I'm on the front lines doing what I'm told/Paying my dues in the valley of the soul." These words come from the mouth -- and heart -- of one who has been "seen" by her lost beloved, and her new invisibility reveals the price extracted. But there is no regret in having paid it. On "Bird Over the Ocean," acoustic funk meets backporch soul. That amazing pedal steel with violins, hand drums, popping basslines, and a lyric that feels more like poetry than a pop song, moves one spiritually all the way home. This is underscored by the enigmatic "Call on Me," with a bassline that is more pronounced as funk meets fado and Latin rhythms entwine and kiss as the protagonist offers an exhortation of return to a wayward love. There is no desperation, but stability, generosity, and unconditional love in her words. The rhythm here is belly bone slipping infectious. "Temporary Lighthouses" recalls the very best from Joni Mitchell's jazz period, without being anything other than another reflection of Morley 's singing voice and writing chops. Campbell's steel once more provides a thoroughly unexpected atmosphere that is more jazzed up Speedy West than honky tonk Sneaky Pete. The shimmering laid-back country-rock in "Behind the Rim (Addiction)," is more streetwise poetic. The sheer elegance and grace in her melody and the limpid clarity in her vocal take the edge off the dark truth expressed in the lyric. "There There" is so soulful that this woman could duet with Terry Callier. The gentle, spiritually taut "Women of Hope" that closes the album, inspired by the quietly courageous activism of Aung San Suu Kyi, comes full circle and reveals its true weight and worth. With a spare, distorted electric guitar, muffled drum kit and a low-key bassline, Morley prays for and celebrates those women who suffer in the hellholes of the world -- from American ghettos to the killing fields of Sudan -- without once sounding preachy or holier-than-thou or precious. The key lyric: "If you're feeling helpless, help someone" belongs to Suu Kyi. Seen is an album motivated by love, pure and simple and profound. It musically and lyrically acknowledges weakness as strength. This is an album so original and poetically beautiful, it deserves its own category.