Devil's Halo

by: Meshell Ndegeocello

On three of her last four recordings, Meshell Ndegeocello has showcased her aesthetic restlessness, expanding her musical horizons to jazz, hip-hop, and the far-flung reaches of rock as well as funk and soul. On Devil's Halo, she focuses her vision deliberately on a dozen soulish, near-pop, rock tunes. Recorded by S. Husky Höskulds, it's stark compared to her last three albums. Ndegeocello plays bass and sings backed by guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Deantoni Parks, and keyboardist Keith Ciancia, with guest appearances by Oren Bloedow, and Lisa Germano. Desire haunts all the songs on Devil's Halo, beginning with "Slaughter," its opening track. Ndegeocello sings slowly, softly, deliberately, without a hint of irony: "She said she loved me/I ran away/ Don't say you love me/I'll run away..." The refrain explodes with guitars, bass, and vocals in a shattering crescendo: "...My love will leave you slaughter..." Romance, substance abuse, and one woman speaking candidly to another are themes in this musical meditation on bliss, lust, loneliness, and emotional wreckage, which are inseparable when the amorous is even considered, at least in Ndegeocello's world. "Lola" begins with the lines: "She drinks until she passes out/on the floor..." then erupts with a series of double-timed breaks to underscore confusion: "The boy she loved/left her for another girl/The girl she loved/left her for another boy..." A staccato explosion from Bruce's guitar engages her bassline in an instrumental bridge that Frank Zappa would have loved. "Mass Transit" is funkier, a bit more aggressive from the outset with Bruce's guitar leading the way, though Ndegeocello's bassline offers an alternate read on both melody and rhythmic pulse. Her voice is a soft croon despite the music's aggression, and it keeps the tune grounded in the seductive. "White Girl" may be the straightest pop song Ndegeocello's ever written, but its bassline is strictly dubwise. The vocals are smoky and elliptical, they create their own chorus in reverb and in the singer's deliberately stretched-out phrase, all around a very simple, hooky melody. The title track is a nearly ambient instrumental, with Ndegeocello playing harmonics on her bass in the mix just underneath a snare and kick drum barely outlining the time signature. Bruce paints it gingerly with his chord voicings. "A Bright Shiny Morning" is a gorgeous if lithe rocker, while "Blood on the Curb" is a more soulful, spacy rockist number with Ndegeocello's voice barely crooning above the heavyweight instrumentation, though she practices dynamic restraint. The album ends with another ballad, the brief but startling "Crying in Your Beer" with Bruce playing a spidery banjo as well as guitar atop Ciancia's ghostly keyboards and a skeletal bassline. It's an atmospheric tune, made taut by the words: " Sometimes, I forget where we are/Sometimes, I forget we're in love/Don't let me/die alone...." Ndegeocello can always, it seems, quite literally articulate her musical vision, but she hasn't been so nakedly vulnerable and brazenly honest on record as she is here. She remains musically mercurial and virtually unclassifiable, even if she is at her most accessible on Devil's Halo. ~ Thom Jurek

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