Meshell Ndegeocello

Ventriloquism

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AllMusic Review by

Covers have been part of Meshell Ndegeocello album sessions since 1996, when the masterful bassist and undervalued vocalist updated Bill Withers' "Who Is He and What Is He to You." Her late-2000s/early-2010s repertoire included radically reshaped versions of songs originally recorded by and/or associated with Ready for the World, Leonard Cohen, the Soul Children, Nina Simone, and Whodini. For this creative all-covers set bearing an incompatible title, Ndegeocello concentrates on the era that birthed the Ready for the World and Whodini tracks -- the mid- to late '80s, primarily her late-teenage years -- with wistfulness applied only when the material calls for it. She heads a group that consists of longtime partners Chris Bruce (guitar) and Jebin Bruni (keyboards, production), and relatively recent associate Abe Rounds (drums, vocals). The quartet, occasionally joined by players such as Doyle Bramhall II, Jeff Parker, and Levon Henry, roams fluidly through funk, roots music, and unclassifiable stylistic amalgamations, like they're doing so on an intuitive level. Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's "I Wonder If I Take You Home" opens the album in rumbling, knotted form, and Sade's "Smooth Operator" slinks, dips, and dives like a modern spy-film theme to end the album. Apart from those numbers and an "Atomic Dog" that sounds urban-rancher kitschy until it becomes apparent that it actually slays, the album moves measuredly with slow jams and ballads. Al B. Sure!'s "Nite and Day" and the System's "Don't Disturb This Groove" rapturously float. Three pages from the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis songbook appear consecutively around the middle and switch from a kind of bopping strut to droning atmospheres that verge on threatening. (Imagine what could have been done with the S.O.S. Band's "Tell Me If You Still Care.") TLC's "Waterfalls," the only selection originally released after Plantation Lullabies, sounds wiser from Ndegeocello. Even more poignant is Prince's "Sometimes It Snows in April," mercifully placed early in the sequence, rather than at the end, so as not to leave the listener a weeping wreck.

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