It’s a stretch to view the new albums by Americana song stylist Carrie Rodriguez and rootsy jazz revisionist Cassandra Wilson as departures from their respective artistic norms. But each recording, in very different ways, affirms sounds that build and break from what we have at least partially accepted as their proven musical comfort zones.
Rodriguez’s second solo album, She Ain’t Me, is the Berklee-trained fiddler and singer’s first full effort away from Svengali producer and songwriter Chip Taylor. Though her 2006 solo debut Seven Angels on a Bicycle added an attractive misty ambience to her Texas-bred music, the album relied on material almost exclusively penned and produced by Taylor.
On She Ain’t Me, Rodriguez enlists a new team of songwriting pals, including Mary Gauthier (on the wintry, fiddle infused Absence), Jayhawk Gary Louris (on the hapless but hopeful coda tune Can’t Cry Enough) and former Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist (on Grace, which Rodriguez colors with plaintive colors of electric mandolin).
The highlight, though, is the tune Rodriguez penned herself. With its hushed, high end vocals, Let Me In sounds like Alison Krauss on an especially downbeat day. Even the broken pizzicato chatter of her fiddle sounds like a disembodied voice trying to harmonize. Then the guitar twang rushes in to color the after hours imagery before receding.
Credit producer Malcolm Burn, who has overseen such classics as Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl, for why the tune possesses such spooky, slight of hand atmospherics. But it is the light yet unsettling lyrical sway of Rodriguez’s songs and the restless reserve of her singing that ultimately sells She Ain’t Me.
Wilson’s Loverly is a standards album that – at least, initially – seeks to sever ties with the lean, ghostly folk and blues scenarios that have been draped around most of the singer’s Blue Note recordings over the past 15 years. 2006’s T Bone Burnett-produced Thunderbird was also intended as a departure. But Burnett simply made the rootsy swagger that supported Wilson’s husky yet whispery vocals sound more cosmopolitan than rural.
And so for jazz fans, the first half of Loverly (with Wilson serving as her own producer) sounds new even as it seeks to refine the familiar. Oscar Hammerstein’s Lover Come Back to Me is set to giddy piano/guitar swing while Black Orpheus simmers with summery bossa nova that makes Wilson sound more than ever like Nina Simone.
Then, with a lean reading of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most arranged around Marvin Sewell’s lone acoustic guitar chatter, the album begins to refocus on the worldly cast of Wilson’s earlier Blue Note music.
An improvisation by Wilson and her band called Arere falls between West African worldbeat and Brazilian finesse – an approximation in miniature of what Paul Simon sought on The Rhythm of the Saints. Then, when the mood turns blue with St. James Infirmary, which echoes with guitar lines of tasteful funk, and a reading of the Elmore James favorite Dust My Broom set to a sly percussive strut, Loverly begins to display its gentle ferocity not in shades of mainstream jazz, but in that gorgeous, genre-defying world where blues, jazz, folk and subtle pop references mingle freely for a sound like no other. Into that port, where Wilson is an uncontested queen, Loverly ultimately sails.