Lizz Wright and Her Beautiful Orchard
The marketing practices of media companies often obscure the importance of collaboration in the creation of the music, films and other artistic productions. That’s too bad, since in many cases the success of a particular project is a function of someone choosing the right mix of people, a group, however varied its members’ backgrounds and skills, that can cohere and make something magical happen. With The Orchard, the latest recording by singer Lizz Wright, we have what seems to be the result of such a process.
Her two previous albums, Salt (2003) and Dreaming Wide Awake (2005), were also the result of extensive collaboration, with credits including musicians as diverse as drummer Brian Blade, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, pianist Danilo Pérez and multi-instrumentalist Marc Anthony Thompson (aka Chocolate Genius). Blade, with keyboardist Jon Cowherd, acted as producer on the first of the albums, though with mixed results. The great songs, of which there were only a few, competed with a number of substandard ones, the lush production and varied arrangements notwithstanding. “Blue Rose” is far and above my favorite track on the recording. Of course, my saying that may have something to do with the fact that its chorus seemed a sympathetic description of the girlfriend who dumped me (via e-mail) the day I bought the recording: “Maybe she’s just a morning glory lost in a tangle of vine.” (Come to think of it, that description could apply equally well to at least two others.) Blade’s drumming was as sensitive as ever, Cowherd’s keyboard work evocative, and Wright’s delivery heart-wrenching. Neither that song nor the other standouts—like “Soon as I Get Home”—could rescue the rest of recording. I remember wondering then whether Verve would keep her under contract long enough for album number two.
But keep her they did, and she and/or someone at the label decided to choose Craig Street to handle primary production duties for the second album. Street is perhaps best-known for his work on two of Cassandra Wilson’s best recordings from the 1990s: Blue Light ’til Dawn and New Moon Daughter (more on Wilson in this post). A revealing article/interview in Mix magazine several years ago described him as a “studio environmentalist," and I think that’s an accurate way to characterize his approach: having musicians perform simultaneously whenever possible, creating expansive soundscapes and drawing on the widest possible range of musical styles. Together, Wright and Street chose a different stable of collaborators—many of whom had worked with Street on other projects. Perhaps the most brilliant stroke (though whose it was isn’t clear to me) was the choice of Toshi Reagon (daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon) to help with the composition of the material. It was a much better album through-and-through than its predecessor, but still not ready for prime time.
With The Orchard, though, everything seems to have fallen into place. The album begins with a song whose melody and arrangement make it seem a modern spiritual. Wright’s singing has never sounded more confident and rich, and the airy drumming, the jangly acoustic guitar playing, the Hammond organ flourishes and smoldering wah-wah guitar parts work together flawlessly. The second track, “My Heart,” takes things up a notch or two, utilizing similar instrumentation to achieve quite a different effect. The groove and the changes in the arrangement create an appropriate sense of drama. From there, the album keeps building. “I Idolize You” shows that Wright and Co. know how to deliver a sultry song—one written in this case by the late Ike Turner, while “When I Fall” and “Speak Your Heart” work in the opposite way—communicating uncertainty and vulnerability through the lyrics, the arrangements and the vocalist’s whispery delivery.
The latter of those songs, which features some subtle background vocals from Thompson, is tied with another in the race for most beautiful song on the album. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the the competitor, “Another Angel,” is that Wright co-wrote it with John Leventhal, who has fulfilled the producer role on all of Shawn Colvin’s great records. The song starts sparsely, with only acoustic guitar accompanying the voice, but by the end of the first verse, it fills out with drums, bass, and electric piano entering softly and gradually. If only this song had been on the first album, I might have been inspired to move on sooner after the 2003 breakup. If the song’s lyrics might make her sound, again, like a wounded bird or someone who’s trying to convince herself to let go, the entrance of an electric guitar in the bridge and the words “No one can stop me. I’m going to run until ’til I get free / ’Cause I can’t wait until you’re gone / From me” make it clear that her narrator is more determined than one might initially have thought. When she repeats some of the words from before the bridge, I suspect most listeners might hear them differently.
I’m not sure, beyond satellite radio, where this recording will get airplay. But you shouldn’t wait for radio or television programmers to open your ears to her. She’s released the recording that to me could be a breakthrough. Even if things don’t turn out that way, she and her collaborators have created something that is ideal for a quiet Saturday night with a glass of wine or a lazy Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. So my parting question is this: will you listen to it tonight, tomorrow, or both? Okay, I lied, there’s one more thing to say: you might use this as a soundtrack, especially in the Saturday scenario, for your own kind of, er, collaboration…