First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2006, Volume 13, #6
Written by John Metzger
Moving from the eclectically-minded outings of Nina Simone in the ’60s to the classic work of Marvin Gaye during the early ’70s to the neo-folk recordings that Cassandra Wilson has made for the Blue Note label over the course of the past decade-plus has never been a major leap. With the help of producer T Bone Burnett, however, Wilson not only makes these connections readily apparent throughout her latest endeavor Thunderbird, but together, the duo also succeeds in rejuvenating the genre of modern urban soul, which long ago seemed to swap its organic lifeblood for the sort of sterility that goes hand-in-hand with mainstream aspirations.
Much like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Nigel Godrich, Burnett has developed a style of production that is immediately recognizable and unique, and although the atmospheric flourishes and experimental textures that he tends to employ undoubtedly are implemented with the utmost care, his arrangements ultimately feel natural and effortless. This holds true throughout Thunderbird, and his ability to turn subtlety into an art gives Wilson’s dusky voice ample room to maneuver. Look, for example, at the manner in which the traditional Easy Rider switches from minimalist contemplation to fully amplified defiance at just the precise moment so as to alter its lyrical tone. Likewise, Poet is enveloped in a seductive groove that suitably enhances its mood of carnal pleasure, while Strike a Match is a guitar-free, impressionistic tumble back into solitude.
Sequenced as a meditation on the ups and downs of a relationship, Thunderbird is neatly divided into segments that shift from exploring the pain and anguish of abandonment to expressing the joy of being in love to the eventual understanding that fate is an unavoidable aspect of life. Conveying a desire to escape, the opening Go to Mexico begins the narrative’s initial downward spiral into depression, though intriguingly it also is the only song on the set that addresses, however vaguely, current societal issues. In bending a sample of The Wild Tchoupitoulas performing Hey Pocky A-Way into the tune’s rhythm track, Wilson and Burnett deftly augment the underlying message by musically straddling the line between a pair of Marvin Gaye’s well-known hits: What’s Going On and Sexual Healing. So powerful is the end result, that its shadow is cast across the entirety of the affair. By contrast, on the final track Tarot — which effectively translates the challenging jazz-folk ruminations of Joni Mitchell (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Mingus, for example) into a soul-imbued environment — Wilson accepts the notion that she is destined to spend her life restlessly searching for her soulmate.
In spite of its contemporary accoutrements, however, it’s Nina Simone who serves as Thunderbird’s driving influence, and in similar fashion, Wilson strikes the perfect balance between exuding strength and vulnerability. On the traditional Easy Rider as well as the subsequent original composition It Would Be So Easy, Wilson initially appears to be devastated by her errant partner’s behavior, but by the conclusion of both tracks, she finds within herself the tenacity to move past her grief. Elsewhere, she softens the gruff, sexual come-on of Willie Dixon’s I Want to Be Loved, deliberates over the distance that divides two lovers on a cover of The Wallflowers’ Closer to You, and twists the old cowboy tune Red River Valley into a mournful, gospel-blues lament. There’s little doubt that the album highlights the direction in which Wilson has been moving for some time, but although her past pursuits hinted at her immense talent, none of them succeeded in framing it nearly as perfectly as Thunderbird does.
Thunderbird is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box