Closer to You: The Pop Side
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2009, Volume 16, #5
Written by John Metzger
Mon May 18, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
The points of comparison between the approaches of Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson have always been in abundance. After all, both artists are capable not only of conveying a wide range of emotions through their work, but also of changing the mood of a song simply by making minor modifications to their vocal inflections. Few performers are able to wrench new perspectives from material that grew wearisome to perform long ago, yet both Simone and Wilson have accomplished this feat countless times in their careers. In addition, like Simone, Wilson has had a tendency to push beyond the catalogue of material that typically is available to jazz singers. In the process, she has reignited interest in the style by turning a number of modern pop, folk, and rock songs into jazz standards. Much as its title suggests, Closer to You: The Pop Side emphasizes Wilson’s fondness for contemporary tunes. By fusing together 11 tracks from her recordings for Blue Note, it binds this aspect of her work more tightly than ever to Simone’s output.
Naturally, the concept of tackling unconventional fare isn’t without its risks. Even Simone sometimes faltered in her attempts to incorporate a broad range of material into her repertoire. Not surprisingly, Wilson, too, falls prey to her penchant for pop. Although songs like Time after Time and Last Train to Clarksville — which were hits for Cyndi Lauper and The Monkees, respectively — are inspired choices, Wilson never really sounded comfortable performing either of them. Unfortunately, they are even further diminished within the context of Closer to You: The Pop Side. The set lacks the contrasting textural patterns of her proper albums, and its tighter focus gives the individual tracks considerably less room to breathe.
Still, there is no denying the fact that Wilson is an extraordinarily gifted vocalist with a knack for chasing her ambitions until they bear fruit, and most of her forays into the realms of pop and rock have been remarkably successful. Despite the obviousness of choices like Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and The Band’s The Weight, Wilson fully inhabits them until they become her own. Elsewhere, she beautifully applies her dusky voice to Sting’s Fragile in a way that magnifies its underlying Brazilian groove, and she retains the delicate atmosphere of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon while deftly filling it with soulful yearning. In the hands of producer T Bone Burnett, Wilson completely reinvents The Wallflowers’ Closer to You. Likewise, her reading of U2’s Love Is Blindness roams from eerily ambient anguish to the gentle warmth of salvation.
Closer to You: The Pop Side is far too limited in its scope for anyone to draw a meaningful conclusion about Wilson’s output. Nevertheless, it does manage to accomplish its primary goal, which was to broaden her audience by making her work seem more approachable. Closer to You: The Pop Side may be uneven. Yet, it’s impossible not to admire the gambles that Wilson has taken or to stand in awe of those moments when she took a familiar tune and caused it to glow like light through a prism. ½
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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