Not only has Esperanza Spalding taken the music world by storm in the last two years following a Grammy win, despite the lack of weird costumes and stage set-ups, but it seems our lady from the land of unicorns and big ass food carts (Portland, Oregon) has been playing games with us as well. First, the music.
While not a proper thematic sequel, Radio Music Society is the follow-up to her 2010 album Chamber Music Society, a recording that pushed her even further into the mainstream with her musicianship, singing, songwriting, and arrangements. It lead some jazz fans to wonder if she was breaking out to become a pop artist, while others felt Spalding was the perfect artist to take jazz and classical touches into a pop marketplace that arguably lacks it. It also lead pop music fans to throw hate because she won over their favorite artists, all without actually listening to her music. Spalding was not new when she won the Grammy, she does have a small number of releases to her name As someone who comes from some of the influences Prince helped to create in the 1980’s (both musically and socially), it seemed everyone wanted her to be something without actually listening to what she had to put into the pot. Her new album adds more spices into that pot, feel free to add your own hot sauce and rice if needed.
The music on Radio Music Society is a continuation of the path she created for herself on Chamber Music Society, and even before that, with a nice blend of soul, jazz, and classical touches. In the opening track “Radio Song”, she talks about the addictive qualities of music as a whole by saying when you turn on the radio, you use music as not only entertainment but as a means of temporary relief. When you find the right channel, “you can’t help singing along/even though you never heard it, you keep singing it wrong/this song will keep you grooving, played to lift your spirits”. It’s a frequency that not only has to do with being entertained, but to find a kindred spirit, a bit of interaction between yourself and the emotions a song is able to create in you. It immediately sets the tone for what the album is about, finding something that moves you and others, in what some might call soul. Yet within her soul stylings are the jazz influences, this is not a drum loop or machine sequenced to be an eternal 4/4, there’s a human side and it’s what we unconsciously seek in order to hopefully feel what the artist did. “Cinnamon Tree” sounds like something one can imagine if the Isley Brothers, Prince, Natalie Cole, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Al Jarreau were able to unite and create a timeless song. One can easily find this get heavy rotation on jazz radio stations, along with adult contemporary pop, and yet it also goes back to a time when this is what kids looked forward to enjoying when turning on their radios. There’s a bit of motherly warmth in the way she sings about “the sweet seasonings”, as if music was nothing more than a means of extra comfort at home.
“Land Of The Free” is a brief track (less than two mintues) where Spalding takes everyone to church, with nothing but a Hammond organ and her voice, touching briefly on human rights while questioning the rights of one but the lack of it for someone else. This moves right into “Black Gold,” a bluesy song about the beauty of a child done in a way that might make Beyonce go “wow, I wish I could do that.” Spalding takes on Michael Jackson with a cover of “I Can’t Help It” very well, and in fact, some of the horn arrangements on this album remind me of the vibe that the Seawind horns also did on MJ’s Off The Wall, as if she’s specifically trying to display the wide range of influences and what the music of the past has done to help create a Radio Music Society. One of my favorite tracks, “Vague Suspicions,”, features the kind of arrangement that can only come from someone who understands music, complete with counter melodies, layers, and hues that is just incredible to experience. For those who may feel she has forgotten her Pacific Northwest roots, she honors Portland with “City Of Roses” by referring to its own jazz heritage and legacy by praising the bridges, Mt. Hood, and the place formally known by some as Jump Town. No place like home.
Like most good albums, Radio Music Society can be seen as a travelogue of sorts, a way for Spalding to say “this is the life I see, the life I experience, and the music I want to share from within”. If there is a sense of continuity on this album, it’s that one wants to find some sense of home. If it’s music, you’ll be able to find it. If it’s in a community of like-minded individuals, you keep on searching and encourage others to join you along the way. The radio was once the source for a bit of “outside of our comfort zone” community, an audio bulletin board where friends would discuss and analyze in school to discuss how it made us feel. Yet by listening to the vibe of the music on this recording, is she saying that we are a radio music society hoping to push on our influences to the next generation, or is it a statement towards today’s current radio music society? In many ways, one can consider this the flip side to the same coin that Robert Glasper created with Black Radio, as the music, lyrics, vocal stylings, and arrangements are an ode to what helped create that society in the first place. Both albums have what one would call “feel good” music, the kind of soul that some want to call irrelevant or dated because it’s not being done now. If it has real horns, people want to call it “jazz”, which for some means “old people music” but what’s wrong with that? Music is ageless, and what Spalding does here is offer up a few games and puzzles for you to think about. The music on Radio Music Society is not different from Chamber Music Society, and yet if it’s called ‘chamber music”, it suggests a level of respect that other forms of music often doesn’t receive. If you pay homage to Bob Dylan on your previous album, it might make people go “oh, so is she suggesting she is Dylanesque?” Now look at her new album. She is sitting on a boom box, an image that some will view as being hip-hop. Is she now a b-girl ready to throw on some dookie gold ropes and drop some serious freestyles? No. If the term “radio music” is meant to suggest something accessible and pop-friendly, then these songs are very much that, and yet they are no different from what she did the last time. Spalding is basically challenging fans, critics, and listeners to define her, to redefine their assumptions, and then defy the preferences others have placed on her. When you hear these songs, one may single out the jazz, soul, and classical influences on the radio, and may begin to question what actually defines “radio music”. In other words, Radio Music Society is an inner dialogue moved into the real world, as a community of like-minded individuals loudly unite in the hopes of being able to sing harmoniously in the key of life.