Cassandra Wilson's swinging for her own creative fences this time. The sultry, gentle, acoustic guitars on her last five recordings have been largely jettisoned for a more keyboard-and percussion -friendly approach -- which includes lots of programming and loops. To that end, she's enlisted flavor-of-the-year producer T-Bone Burnett and keyboardist Keith Ciancia. This pair hired a stellar group of players that include drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Reginald Veal (a near-constant here), guitarists Colin Linden and Marc Ribot, and programming whiz Mike Elizondo. Mike Piersante plays "keypercussion" (read: drum loops), Jay Bellerose and Bill Maxwell also contribute kit work. Keb Mo' guests on a track. Ever since signing to Blue Note, Wilson's walked a razor-wire between blues, pop, and jazz, but her recordings have always been intimate affairs whether she was singing songs by Robert Johnson or Van Morrison. While she does preserve a degree of that intimacy here, some of it has fallen by the wayside in favor of the near-constant presence of drum loops, with subtle samples dropped in giving the entire proceeding a slightly more urban feel. A startling example is "Go to Mexico," where a percussion loop and the vocal chant from the Wild Tchapitoulas "Hey Pocky A-Way," are directly sampled with new words and instrumentation layered over the top -- including Veal copying the bassline. In addition, Wilson sings in a voice not really heard from her before. Intertwined with her trademark, smoky contralto (Wilson has been deeply influenced by Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter but has become a true song stylist of her own), is a falsetto in the verse that feels like a deliberate attempt at singing "straight" modern pop. The thin, compressed production with her vocal mixed so high above the largely keyboard-driven instrumentation feels forced, at odds with the tune, and nearly sterile. Thankfully, it's the exception rather than the rule on Thunderbird. The atmospheric keyboard line that introduces her read of Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers' "Closer to You," gives way to Keltner's softly insistent trip-hop shuffle, Veal's minimal bassline, and Ciancia's piano, keyboards, and loops are the working elements here. Wilson's guitar drifts in under her aching, seductive vocal on the refrain as Veal subtly anchors her. Wilson's read of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Easy Rider" starts out that way -- with Linden and Ribot playing snaky and skeletal for the first two verses. It roars to life about two-and-half-minutes in, fully electric, dirty, nasty, and drenched in slow, deep swamp blues. Keltner's playing is utterly transfixing here. At a touch over seven minutes, its entrancing dynamics provide a virtual journey though the blues both past and future. The slippery drum loops re-enter on the band-written original "It Would Be So Easy," and here, club music touches pop touches the roots of the blues -- the former two happen because of the instrumentation, the latter is due to Wilson's instrument, which embodies them all and creates a new and ghostly meld. "Red River Valley" is the album's centerpiece. Accompanied only by Linden' electric slide guitar, it is full of the desolation of the tune's intent, but framed in the context of the Delta. It's one of two guitar/vocal duets here; the other one, the ballad "Lost," is more late-night Julie London than Billie Holiday. Willie Dixon's "I Want to Be Loved" is wonderful update of the blues, and "Poet" may not hit the Urban Top Ten chart, but it should; it's wondrously soulful, sexy, and glossy. While Wilson has certainly not lost any of her singular talent for interpreting the Chicago blues through the lens of jazz and pop , she has expanded her palette once more by creating an entirely new bag from which we might hear pop, through the age-old hypnotic, sensual, incantory veil of the blues.
by Thom Jurek