Album Review: Me'Shell Ndegéocello - Ventriloquism
The idea of the ‘cover song’ is daunting, polarizing, and can be incredibly difficult to pull off.
As a performer, you have to find the right balance—you want to bring something new and invigorating to the song. You don’t want to ‘make it your own,’ but you have to bring the right amount of yourself to it. At the same time, you don’t want to absolutely butcher it, and you don’t want to wind up with what amounts to an uninspired, carbon copy of the original.
It’s a delicate and fine line to tread.
If you recognize the name Me'Shell Ndegéocello, part of me suspects it’s because of a) her idiosyncratic 1993 single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” or b) because of her memorable guest spot on John Mellencamp’s over of “Wild Night.”
But maybe I should give you more credit. Perhaps you’ve been following her career over the last 25 years, where she’s made mercurial, genre-defying music that blends soul, hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and funk, among other styles into a compelling and strange amalgamation—even when she was signed to a major label for a decade, her output was always artistically uncompromising.
Arriving four years after her last album, and being touted as something familiar to seek refuge in during a time ‘so extreme and overwhelming,’ where there is ‘no satisfactory direction for art or action,’ Ndegéocello’s Ventriloquism is a collection of 11 cover songs, pulled from artists like Prince, TLC, Sade, and Tina Turner, among others.
If you strain your eyes a little, you can see the slight through line that connects these together—not that an album of covers needs to be connected per se. But this isn’t Ndegéocello taking on the material of one artist, or her doing something like ‘The Great American Songbook.’ These are, more or less, pop and R&B hits from the 1980s and 1990s—some of which may be slightly more obscure or eccentric than others, and Ndegéocello wisely structures the album so that she makes the most of the marquee name tracks throughout, as opposed to playing her hand too soon, or saving them until the end.
It’s also the most well known songs on here that Ndegéocello and her band most dramatically reinterpret, and are among the most successfully executed on Ventriloquism. Here, they turn the sultry “Smooth Operator” into something that borders on menacing, or at the very least, unnerving—hunkering down into a slinking groove that rumbles with dissonance; and just before that, Ndegéocello strips away the 1980s trappings of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” (written by Mark Knopfler of all people), turning it into a sparse, acoustic confessional, allowing the sorrow of the lyrics to become the focus.
She does something similar to TLC’s iconic “Waterfalls”—unfortunately dropping Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez’s rap from the cover, however, Ndegéocello turns the song into a somber, though rootsy shuffle.
Probably the best, or at least the most surprising, of this collection is Ndegéocello’s take on Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April,” taken from the soundtrack to his maligned film, Under The Cherry Moon. There are very few songs like it in Prince’s canon—deliberately paced and sprawling, it features minimal instrumentation, and it’s just so fucking sad, which is why it’s an amazing song.
The entire reason I was drawn to listening to Ventriloquism was to hear what Ndegéocello did with this song, and it doesn’t disappoint. Her version, too, is deliberately placed, sprawling, and sad—still trying to keep the instrumentation minimal, but here, the piano that serves as the main instrument in the original is replaced by an electric guitar. She also adds percussion, giving an already dark song a dirge-like tempo and feeling.
However, not every track on Ventriloquism is as successful or interesting to listen to in the way Ndegéocello and her band deconstruct it. It’s not necessarily bad, but a song like Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” is one of the less memorable of this set—though it, much like, “Smooth Operator,” puts a somewhat ominous spin on a relatively smooth and light-leaning original.
The inclusion of the classic funk track “Atomic Dog,” also sticks out, and seems drastically out of place among the rest of the songs included here. An iconic song for George Clinton, it saw a second life a decade later when sampled by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg—once a weird, schizophrenic and noisy funk slither, here, it’s been turned inward, into an ethereal, folk-tinged mantra; and it just doesn’t work.
Something worth nothing about Ventriloquism is that Ndegéocello and her band never really let these songs get away from them, and I think that’s intentional, in an effort to build tension that is never really released. Her very capable and tight sounding band—comprised of Chris Bruce on guitar, Abraham Rounds on drums, and Jebin Bruni on keyboards (also serving as producer)—play with a very noticeable and calculated reserve.
It makes for an impressive sounding record, sure, thanks in part too to how it was produced and mixed, but that conservation of energy throughout never lets Ndegéocello cut loose; though, maybe she’s beyond that now as an artist, or maybe this collection of songs didn’t need that kind of energy.
Ventriloquism arrives as the kind of album that isn’t out to earn Ndegéocello some kind of new set of fans—and by choosing to cover songs from the 1980s and 90s, she’s catering to listeners who have, more than likely, been following her career since the beginning. It’s not as exhilarating of a listen as, say, Ndegéocello’s 2002 hip-hop infused Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape—which is a strange, often angry, and fascinating experience to say the least. However, there are rewards to be found within Ventriloquism, a dense record, full of fragmented familiarity, to soundtrack difficult times.