Lizz Wright: “The Orchard”

Apparently, Lizz Wright has been holding out on us. Over the course of her first two albums, Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake, Wright established herself as a song interpreter of considerable range and skill, fusing jazz, soul, folk, and R&B into her own sensual brand of slow-burning blues– and she made it all sound so effortless that, for a while, it looked like she might be taking over the throne formerly occupied by Cassandra Wilson (whose last album, thunderbird, was hit and miss). But on her third album, The Orchard, Wright raises the stakes and takes her game to a new level by unveiling a skill she’d only teased us with a couple of times in the past: songwriting.

Unlike her first two records, which relied on cover songs and tunes crafted by other writers, The Orchard boasts eight songs either written or co-written by Wright among its twelve tracks. Of course, her earlier albums included material written by the likes of Neil Young, Joe Henry, and Marc Anthony Thompson, so to say that her originals are better songs would be stretching things, but there’s no doubt that singing her own material has freed her up as an artist, resulting in her boldest, most colorful and assured album yet.

It’s not that the album is a departure so much as a refinement and expansion of her skills. Producer Craig Street returns, and he and Wright mine the same vein of sultry, soulful, song-oriented material that touches on everything from country and Gospel to torchy jazz and hip-shaking R&B. It’s roughly the same approach the two took on Dreaming Wide Awake, but Wright sounds more comfortable with the material here, resulting in a more energized, spirited performance; some of these songs burn with a soulful intensity only hinted at on her first two, comparatively mellow albums, and a couple of songs speed up the tempo enough to almost qualify as full-on pop songs. Street, for his part, is bolder than ever with the arrangements; while Dreaming and Salt sometimes came a bit too close to a non-specific, coffee-house folk sound, this record wears its roots on its sleeve; it’s not afraid to drench the bluesy Ike Turner song “Idolize You” in a wash of Wurlitzer organ, or to allow “My Heat” to be carried along by its throbbing beat, turning it into a spirited, primal dance. “Hey Mann” is the kind of sweeping, tear-jerking ballad that could be a big, schmaltzy hit for Whitney Houston or Celine Dion, but Wright brings to it a gritty authenticity that betrays her upbringing in Gospel and blues music. At the other end of the spectrum, “Leave Me Standing Alone” is the fiercest, funkiest track she’s ever cut, rolling along on a cantankerous groove and punctuated by shards of angry electric guitar.

As well as the album showcases Wright’s genre-hopping diversity, though, it never feels like she’s working too hard to show off her chops; she’s simply showing discernment and good taste by giving each song just the treatment it deserves. That she’s able to write songs steeped in so many different traditions is a testament to what a great writer she is; she’s obviously learned a lot from the masters she’s covered, as every track here emanates and embraces primal feelings of love and of need– sometimes phrased in almost spiritual terms, sometimes in intensely erotic terms, sometimes a bit of both. Album opener, “Coming Home,” for example, is longing and defiant at the same time, unmistakably sensual while still sounding remarkably like a spiritual. “Me Heart,” meanwhile, might have the simplest, most straightforward lyrics of anything she’s ever recorded, but the driving rhythms tap into such basic human feelings of need that it’s positively aching.
Every track is a triumph for Wright both as a writer and a vocalist, and Street brings a sonic richness and an artist’s sense of nuance that makes one suspect that, even if these songs are covered by other artists in the future, they’ll never sound as good as they do here. Taken as a whole, though, it’s an album of striking beauty and scope, and evidence that Lizz Wright has arrived as one of the best artists of her kind. She’s improved upon the blueprint of her first two albums so much that, for her next record, she’ll likely have to change it, because she may never be able to top it.

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