Ventriloquism is a thrill and a surprise.
When an artist as thoroughly idiosyncratic as Meshell Ndegeocello records a set of covers, buckle your seats. Ventriloquism is a thrill and a surprise, a set of 11 hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s that have been reimagined and turned inside out without losing the joy of the originals. If you had been sealed off from these natural groovers when they first were on the radio, you might encounter her versions as a bounty of new songs from a fine songwriter with a clear personality. The album isn’t a mixed-up sampler that doesn’t hang together. Ndegeocello’s musical personality is so strong and original that she transforms the material into her own sonic world.
Ndegeocello made a big splash from her 1993 debut Plantation Lullabies. Her tunes have appeared in over a dozen films, and she has guested as singer, bass player or rapper with acts as varied as Madonna, The Rolling Stones, The Indigo Girls, Alanis Morissette and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Yet her willingness to play ball with the commercial side of the music industry has never compromised Ndegeocello at all: she is openly queer, has sported a somewhat androgynous look and persona in concerts and on video, has taken political stances outside the mainstream and made music over a quarter century that does not shy away from risks. Her 2005 album The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, for example, was a reasonably avant-garde yet funky jazz album featuring the likes of Oliver Lake, Jack DeJohnette, Wallace Roney and Don Byron. It was her first album after leaving her original label and, to put it simply, she gave not one single fuck about commercial success.
Ventriloquism sits at the dead center of Ndegeocello’s battling impulses. On the one hand, it takes a set of very popular songs and recycles them—smart. On the other hand, her re-formation of these tunes is often unsettling or counterintuitive—daring. If there is a primary theme, it is a stripping out of their era-specific instrumentation for more organic, authentic arrangements—usually with atmospheric guitars, both acoustic and electric. Additionally, Ndegeocello often takes fairly static tunes and gives them harmonic twists that alter their moods and bring them closer to the hip, jazz-infused soul that is a signature of her writing.
Two tracks particularly benefit from being dragged out of the synth-patch/drum-machine swamp of their origin. are “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” the 1985 hit by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, was a dance track driven by a very simple drum machine groove, the canny use of cheap synth bass and a verse that used a nursery rhyme feel that slid into a simple romantic chorus. Ndegeocello recreates the groove on real drums, of course, and adds her own busier, organic bass. The dated synths are gone, replaced by James Brown-style funk guitar. Of course, Ndegeocello’s vocal is a throaty whisper rather than a cute squeak, but the main innovation is a splash of two harmonically contrasting chords that lift the tune’s monotony for a moment, a wash of colored light changing from red to blue. Al B. Sure’s 1988 “Nite and Day” is slowed down to a pure ballad with layered electric and acoustic guitars that create a yearning mood. The chorus subs Ndegeocello’s deep female voice for Sure’s falsetto, but she sings the verses in an unadorned voice so they float in the air. The remake is so ethereal that could have been on a Bill Frisell album.
The impulse to make these songs more heartfelt comes through in several performances that could be described as folk-funk. Force MD’s “Tender Love” (nearly a cappella, originally, though with those synths) is rendered with strummed acoustic guitar, harmonica, Wurlitzer electric piano, and simple, effective Americana drums. “Private Dancer,” the monster hit for Tina Turner, may be the most remarkable of all the facelifts in this vein. Ndegeocello slows it down with piano and acoustic piano combining with a half-time, spare drum pattern. The result is a dramatic, beautiful acoustic dirge. On the chorus, the harmonies are altered to give the song a different cast of light: bluer, jazzier. Better even than the fantastic original.
At least two songs are transformed by pulling them somewhat backward in time. Ralph Tresvant’s 1990 “Sensitivity” was a big come-on with a go-go beat, and Ndegeocello brightens her version with sophistication. She wholly rethinks the beat, using an off-kilter shuffle driven by swing-strummed acoustic guitar, syncopated drums and a set of harmonies that bring a Steely Dan vibe to the chorus. Then there is psychedelic New Orleans horn section break. Similarly, The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” is made much more harmonically and texturally complex with the addition of flavor chords and criss-crossing guitar/bass/keyboard patterns such that the melody becomes secondary to the fascinating arrangement. A jazzy acoustic guitar solo before an out chorus fits right in.
At least two arrangements are so radically different that fans of the originals will surely object. As a D.C. native, you know Ndegeocello loves funk master George Clinton, but her version of “Atomic Dog” is the album’s most dramatic reimagining. The almost dada funk of the original becomes a wild mash-up of country/rock guitars that lead your ears into the groove. Justin Timberlake may fancy himself a man in the woods, but Ndegeocello uses those guitars to hook your ears and places the whole tune over a bass pedal-tone—just one insistent note over which guitar riffs provide rhythm. The nonsense rhymes about dogs and cats from the original are now dreamlike rather than playful, maybe a nightmare, but a crazy musical pathway that follows from the energy of that country lick and the increasing rhythmic energy that by the end puts your ears into a loop of guitar improvisation, hand percussion and ecstasy.
Sade’s breakout ‘80s hit, “Smooth Operator,” is also remade to sound weirdly futuristic by converting the original’s breezy Latin groove into a menacing, mechanical funk that is in whip-crack 10/8 time, alternating between bars of six and four, then shifting into straight 8/8 on the choruses. With the “smooth” removed, the song seems more of the current moment, a story about a man who disregards women, now rendered not with sophistication but with a troubling, clacking groove.
There are also tunes here that Ndegeocello remade because, seemingly, she had no choice. Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April” will likely stand the test of time and not be remembered as time-locked in a bygone era. The new version is respectful, slow, spare, with a big kick drum on the verses that cuts out on the chorus, which is only arcing guitars and layered voices. TLC”s 1994 hit “Waterfalls” already had beat, attitude, Wurlitzer electric piano and a touch of neo-soul horns. Nedgeocello turns it into something closer to a slow soul symphony, layering acoustic guitar, vocals that intertwine with real melancholy, burbling synth and heavy piano chords as the story gets weightier. The last 75 seconds begin a throbbing guitar part that amps the song up to dark tragedy.
Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” from 1986’s great Control sounds, in retrospect, like a proto-Meshell track: slinky funk that is lush, harmonically hip, and featuring undersung vocals. The production includes rubbery electric bass and acoustic guitar. Ndegeocello surely covers at least this one straight? No chance. The production on the new version of muddy and snarling, with reverbed acoustic bass played with a bow, tribal drums as an undercurrent, and layers of indefinite sound, including some recitation in French. A string quartet peeks through. Piano takes over as the groove vanishes, then electric guitar, acoustic bass, and synth weave. The harmonies are altered. Another real makeover.
Taking in all of Ventriloquism is a pleasure and a task. You should come away believing that these songs were better than you remembered them being—or at least believing that they are more substantive than you recall. Of Meshell Ndegeocello, you sense that she is one of the rare artists whose touch is full of gravity and power. She should be thought of the way Prince and Bowie, Marvin and Paul Simon are thought of, though she rarely is. Her latest album is not a bid for fame or a bid for respect, but how cool would it be if, through this act of generative transformation, she finally received both to the degree she deserves?