Album Review: Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism (Naïve)

It’s hard for us on this side of the pond to appreciate just how significant an impact the current incumbent of the White House is having on the culture of the United States, many in the arts appear to be literally living in fear. To us Trump seems like a bizarre joke, to them he is the bringer of the apocalypse. Bass player Meshell Ndegeocello has always been socially conscious, as a black female artist in a racially and sexually prejudiced world her senses have always been under attack, now she is seeking escape. Ventriloquism, so called because all the songs on the album were written by other artists, is a retreat into happier times, which for Ndegeocello would seem to be the eighties. A time before she made it big in the music business and presumably had greater freedom; her success with Plantation Lullabies and the remarkable Peace Beyond Passion brought a lot of pressure to repeat the formula, to stick with the funk rock that made money for her and her record company. No artist enjoys restriction and imaginative ones like Ndegeocello are even less inclined to stick to a path just for the lucre.

For Ventriloquism she has picked just shy of a dozen songs from her youth, some of them hits like Sade’s Smooth Operator, here treated to a spoken male voice intro and heavyweight synth bass underneath light female vocals. Mark Knopfler’s Private Dancer, made famous by Tina Turner is taken down tempo and milked for pathos, almost as if it’s a parallel to the way things are for everyone in the entertainment world . Others are album tracks like Janet Jackson’s Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun), an ironic choice given that Ndegeocello doesn’t seem to be having so much fun at the moment. But this version’s cello intro and big drum sound combine well with some classy electric guitar and solid low end to produce a distinctly different vibe to the original.

More successful is Prince’s Sometimes It Snows in April, where the lyrical lament for the death of the fictional Christopher Tracy becomes grief for the passing of the artist who created him. It’s a moodier and more densely orchestrated version than the original with monster bass and high male voice. It’s a clear highlight of the album with massive scale and crystal clear guitar over a fully extended bass line. More upbeat is George Clinton’s Atomic Dog, Ndegeocello avoids emulating the original and starts out with an unusual time signature that segues into something more familiar but lacks the bounce that she might have invested in happier times.

There isn’t a lot of Ndegeocello’s funky bass playing on Ventriloquism, but there is plenty of bass perhaps a little too much on occasion, it’s a plush if clearly digital sounding album that remains clean most of the time but suffers from mild limiting and compression that stops it sounding great. The use of crisp guitar lines leavens the heaviness as do the vocals but this is not an album that will lift the mood in the way that many of the songs on it originally did, it is an interpretation of those tunes in a darker context where hope is at a low ebb. But when you hit the bottom, to quote a nineties hit, things can only get better.

– Jason Kennedy

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