Meshell Ndegeocello strips much of the glossy production off the 11 covers on “Ventriloquism” (Naive/Believe) but keeps — and sometimes boosts — the songs’ emotional charge, investing them with an ethereal quality that acts as a counteragent to these accelerated times.
Ndegeocello’s voice travels the breadth of her range across the record, but there’s also a lot of air in her vocals, a certain restraint that enhances the moods along with the mellower beats per minute.
She creates a bluesy approach to TLC’s “Waterfalls,” a transformation which is reminiscent of Taj Mahal’s reinvention of “Take a Giant Step.” Prince’s own “Sometimes It Snows In April” is drawn out and heart wrenching, its extended intro of just bass and guitar prolonging the anticipation.
If Tina Turner’s take on Mark Knopfler’s “Private Dancer” was sad and disillusioned, Ndegeocello’s is even more pained and reflective. If there’s a glimmer of hope left that she still has time to “have a husband and some children,” it’s fading fast.
A trio of tunes written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity,” Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” and Force MDs’ “Tender Love” — are all given new, successful identities, from vaudeville to folkish.
Opener “I Wonder If I Take You Home” — from Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force — has a funky snare which also shows up in an altered state on closer “Smooth Operator.” Sade’s hit gets an updated time signature in what feels like a theme to love between robots.
Ndegeocello has been making consistently strong albums since her 1993 debut, “Plantation Lullabies.” Her talent or need to avoid being pigeonholed may be a handicap when it comes to wider acclaim, but even a dummy will tell you that “Ventriloquism” is worthy of all ears.
PABLO GORONDI, Associated Press