Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Leela James - Music

***1/2 (out of four)

"Can we just put the thongs away / And fall back in love with music?" sings Leela James in the first verse of "Music." I'd never heard of Leela until the VH1 Soul channel started promoting the hell out of her. And, for once, I'm grateful to have a new artist shoved down my throat.

Leela has soul by the truckload and fondly defends her love for "back porch, down home music." I'm totally with her when she says, "Where did all the soul go? / It's all about the video." And come on, I love my superficial videos with hot women shaking their asses, but we need more genuine music, more actual singing in our songs.

And now Leela James, who name checks Aretha, Gladys, Tina, Chaka Marvin and Donny, carries on the tradition, with a rich, husky voice you'd expect to be coming from the mouth of a 300-pound sister at a black church.

Leela, who appears to be in her mid-twenties, looks kind of like Jill Scott, with big, crazy hair pulled into two clown-wig afro puffs. Hair aside, Leela carries the dignity and conviction of a veteran star. She keeps all her clothes on, and she still looks good.

As for the video, it's none too flashy, but I love the mingling of color shots of Leela walking down the street of a desolate neighborhood with black-and-white shots of her as a child, exploring the same spots. There's a great sequence where little Leela and a friend climb atop milk crates to peek into a club where a band is playing thong-free music. The singer of the band? A very elegant-looking adult Leela.

"Music" is a song I instantly fell in love with, and I'm going to go out and actually buy a physical copy of the album. No downloading. Because I respect and enjoy Leela's sentiment and, just like she does, I have a deep affection for genuine music that comes from the soul. I just wish I still had a turntable.

VERY SIMPLE IRONY: When Leela complains, "Can’t even turn on my radio / Somebody hollerin’ bout a bitch or a hoe," the entire last five words are cut out. The music track even goes silent.

Black Eyed Peas - Don't Lie

*** (of four)

It's been fascinating to watch the Black Eyed Peas complete every step of the selling-out process, from three guys who spit out clever rhymes and put together truly original beats to three guys and a girl singer who used to be a child star now releasing singles that pander to the TRL set. I still like them, but less and less as they evolve and turn over half the vocal duties to the former child star. 1997's Behind the Front - now that was a hip-hop album.

"Don't Lie" is the second straight single to have the former child star singing "No no no no" the exact same way. But it's kinda catchy, and the first two rappers manage to save the song with frequently funny rap verses about lying to your girlfriend. ("Fucked with your heart like I was the Predator / In my book of lies, I was the editor / And the author / I forged my signature.") For the record, the Black Eyed Peas do not advise the practice of lying, but they've definitely pulled a few over on their women in the past.

The former child star - Fergie is her name, I think - walks through the video in various stages of undress. There's a tropical beach setting, a mountain top at nighttime, a street scene that looks to take place in Mexico and a concert from an old, pillar-saturated stone building backlit in green. The editing plays with a three-dimensional feeling layout, with incongruent images frequently overlapping. It creates a trippy but still definitely sanitized feel-good pop kind of mood. Not bad, but definitely a guilty type of pleasure.

Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello - Pocketbook

**1/2 (out of four)

My assessment of Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello in 1994 - "butch-looking bisexual soul-singer who, besides having a name no one can pronounce, sings a duet with Madonna on her new Bedtime Stories album entitled 'I'd Rather Be Your Lover.' The thought of that is worse than that Elton John-RuPaul number 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart.'"

My assessment of Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello now - butch-looking bisexual soul singer who I really wouldn't mind watching get it on with Madonna. Me'Shell exudes mellow confidence in "Pocketbook," a video from the 2001 album Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. The entire album oozes with funk, occasionally of the aggressive and political-statement forms, and it's worth a few listens.

For my money, though, Ndege'Ocello's delivery - which relies heavily on spoken word over actual singing - makes a lot of her songs seem monotonous and interchangeable. "Pocketbook," between its talk-singing verses, does actually feature a memorable chorus. The lyrics, which are basically a lesbian seduction attempt, are playful and kinda clever. ("Your mama gotta be fine / You probably breast-fed / Cause you look real healthy.")

The video itself is a kind of cross between the laid-back, coffeeshop and hip-hop cultures. Ndege'Ocello brandishes a white bass guitar while being surrounded by more than a half-dozen identically dressed dancing hotties. (Hey, the lesbians know how to party. It's all good in the girls' locker room.)

Veteran director Liz Friedlander quick cuts shots of the party people with shots of Ndege'Ocello singing from behind a DJ rig. There's plenty of eye candy, but the video loses points for hammering us with dozens of subliminal "Buy My Record" signs. The dancing hotties are even wearing half shirts that say "Buy My" and short shorts with "Record" smeared across the ass. That's shameful, almost. All that unsubtle effort and the Cookie album still only sold 102,564 copies.