Pop Music Review: Meklit's 'We Are Alive'
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We Californians can be a bit superstitious when it comes to our state's faults. I mean the geological ones, not the other quirky characteristics. No so much Meklit. On her new album, "We Are Alive," the singer-songwriter and global activist confronts that fact of life head-on, even courts it. The set's opening song says it up front. We are, she sings, "Waiting for Earthquakes."
Of course the song is metaphorical, about emotional temblors, not the other kind. But upheaval is a current that runs through the album, both in lyrics and music. In other hands, her folky jazz might be smooth, easygoing. And with her raw, beautiful and nimble voice, she could certainly pull that off. But she never seems content with smooth.
Just as you think you know what the music is, it becomes something else, even if just for an instant. A sudden dart or twist in a melody, as if a thought just popped into her head. A counter-rhythm pluck from bassist Sam Bevan. A spike of melancholic mystery from trumpeter Darren Johnston. A rumbling peal from drummer Lorca Hart. It's the sound of an artist not content to be any one thing, or even one thing at a time. The inherent restlessness is below the surface in some spots, but in others, as on "In Sleep," right up top.
Meklit Hadero was born in Ethiopia, raised in various spots around the U.S., and has been a San Francisco presence for the past dozen years. She's already a TED senior fellow for her work with music and culture of the Nile region and its diaspora.
She's been compared to Joni Mitchell at her most adventurous, as well as the Talking Heads, Norah Jones and Lou Reed - though none of them, or even any combination, give an accurate impression. On her first album she was bold enough to tackle Nina Simone's signature "Feelin' Good." She was one of the creators of "Earthbound," billed as the "first hop-hop space opera," and her all-cover-songs collaboration with soul singer Quinn DeVeaux featured material ranging from Arcade Fire to Neil Young to Stevie Wonder.
Producer Eli Crews - who has worked with TuneYards, another global-minded shaker-upper - helps bring out all of Meklit's experience and perspective in these songs. It's not world music per se, but there is a world of music here, with a dimensional quality only hinted at on her 2010 debut. Even when the music is delicate, as with the toy-piano-based waltz "Stuck on the Moon," there's a sturdiness to it, while the song "Slow" is simply, exuberantly robust.
She also puts her stamp on two cover songs, which in the process serve as good reference points for her own material. There's a sort of Afro-jazz version of the Police's shadowy "Bring On the Night" followed by a traditional Ethiopian song, "Kemekem." The latter, subtitled "I like your Afro," features fellow Ethiopian Samuel Yirga guesting on piano.
Where "Waiting for Earthquakes" sets the tone, the title song, "We Are Alive," ties it all together at the end. Now, she'd never be so trite as to say that we need earthquakes, emotional or otherwise, to make us feel alive. She's just saying: Throw away those superstitions and enjoy the shake.