In the interests of full disclosure (as if the naked pictures of me adorning this blog did not clearly demonstrate my commitment to full disclosure), I need to tell my readers that the artist herself requested this review. Regular readers of this blog and Liam Gallagher know full well that I would never cut anyone a break or compromise my objectivity under any circumstances. I have an ironclad commitment to maintain a professional distance from the artists I review and I follow an unbreakable policy of refusing gifts, free tickets, meeting requests, drinks or offers of mutual sexual satisfaction from any artist or entity in exchange for a favorable review or future consideration.
However, I have a special sub-policy (section 7. a.1.(c), to be exact) that states that I will never use the blog to blast the crap out of a budding artist who is still finding his or her way. Established artists who are getting rich from their loyal fans are fair game when they produce a lazy effort or flat-out garbage (can you hear me, Liam?). When it comes to new artists, though, one must take a more sensitive and civilized approach. If I receive a request from a new artist and find the music unappealing, I’ll write them a little note of apology and politely decline the opportunity to do the review. If the artist asks for feedback, I will provide it in as helpful a manner as possible.
More discerning and intelligent readers may therefore conclude before reading another word that my review of Bess McCrary’s For Happy will be favorable, or I wouldn’t be writing one. Give yourself a gold star for that brilliant display of logic and your ability to pay attention! For Happy is a wonderful record and a stunning début: a jazz/R&B album that keeps to the groove with depth in the lyrics and magic in the music.
Bess McCrary has that indefinable quality that you can’t attribute to one particular thing. Yes, she displays an appealing and expressive voice enhanced by superb phrasing skills. As a composer, she’s miles ahead of what you hear on the typical début album; as a lyricist, she combines surprising boldness with delightful wordplay. As a musician, she has the quality of all great jazz musicians, one that was probably noted on her elementary school report cards: “Bess plays well with others.” What makes her so special is that thing called “The It Factor,” a term first attributed to that sexy, liberated firebrand of the 1920′s, the remarkable Clara Bow. Clara achieved her status through visuals; Bess achieves hers by creating moments within her songs when you feel that all the layers of pretense have been stripped and what you are hearing is not so much her voice but the deepest expressions of a passionate soul. It’s vulnerability, but a vulnerability tempered by inner strength. It’s emotional honesty expressed with intelligence and wit. It’s paradoxical, indescribable and “it.” It also makes for an amazing listening experience.
For Happy is structured as a series of odes to various life experiences. The first is “Incomplete Me,” (Ode to Blind Love) and begins with a bit of sleight-of-hand: when you first hear the opening bars on the piano you think that the song might be a rather formal pop ballad along the lines of something Mary Hopkin might have done in her day: it sounds almost like you’ve stumbled into a piano practice room. Then Bess enters with blue note bends on the vocal, creating a compelling contrast. The combo appears at the start of verse two, confirming the record’s status as a jazz record, and the rest of the song alternates between classic lounge combo and that simple, insistent piano run. I don’t like comparing one vocalist to another, but in this case I think the comparison is helpful. There were times when I heard faint echoes of Dinah Washington in Bess’ voice . . . possibly echoes of common Southern roots. The purpose of the comparison is this: Dinah had a couple of hits with Brook Benton, whose vocalizations are deep, rich and relaxed. Bess would blow poor Brook out of the studio: she’d need a more energetic, expressive partner like Sam Cooke or Bill Withers, who were also soul-level singers.
Though I don’t believe in blind love unless it has something to do with blindfolds, the lyrics to “Incomplete Me” are a fascinating variation on the WTF experience of trying to figure out what the hell is going on with a partner whose participation in the relationship is underwhelming, especially in relation to intimacy. The undertone of the lyrics is a combination of witty, snitty and sassy, mirrored in Bess’s sensuous and playful delivery:
Well to-do, well-begot and you’re certainly well-fed.
Well, well, what’re you gonna do instead?
It ain’t together, it don’t make sense, and it won’t work out.
Production’s failing, morale has slipped—says word of mouth.
“Every Time I Love You” (An Ode on Devolving) opens with a strong swing blast from the band leading into a piano run that introduces Bess McCrary, torch singer. Once again Bess sings about a less than optimum relationship in a vocal somewhere between the smooth sweetness of Doris Day in her big band days and Julie London’s smoky silk. It’s pretty obvious that after two songs that Bess gets it when it comes to jazz; her feel for the groove and ability to vary the pattern from the predictable are both first-rate. The next track proves she can do heart-stopping confessionals with the best of them. “Cry So Good” (An Ode to Knowing Your Strengths) is a powerful experience propelled by that quality of emotional honesty I mentioned above. What she does with her voice is remarkable, but what she does with the feel of the song is absolutely breathtaking: despite the pain she is feeling, she never gets maudlin or sentimental. She has the tone of a woman learning a hard, regrettable and humbling lesson, and the thing that is her strength is ironically exhibit #1 in the case against “weak” females: we cry spontaneously when we feel loss. My only wish for this song is that it had been piano-only; sometimes the arrangement interferes with Bess’ voice, and her voice makes me want to be close to her in her time of need.
“Cry So Good” is followed by “An Astral Project” (An Ode to a Very Final Leaving), a track that begins with the sound of trying to tune in to an old radio. The first vocal line is recorded in lo-fi, leading to a swirling, semi-mystical introductory passage that devolves into a slow, bluesy jazz for the final two lines of the first verse. A rising synth leads to another shift in rhythm to funk, where Bess gives another knockout performance that I will politely describe as “seriously fucking hot.” We fade back to the swirling passage so Bess can deliver the closing verse, which she does with a combination of grace and resignation:
Like it’s not even my life, like it’s happening to somebody else.
I turned off my heart so it wouldn’t work, couldn’t feel, couldn’t hurt.
But it’s done just the same,
Who knows who’s to blame?
“Life’s Work” (An Ode to the Addicted) has a classic bluesy doo-wop feel, but who needs a doo-wop quartet when you’ve got Bess McCrary belting it out? Definitely a crowd-warmer in terms of building excitement, the lyrics cleverly point out that the addict is not only a victim, but also the one in control, particularly in terms of the effect the addiction has on those closest to the addict:
You know you can’t resist
being lost, confused or missed.
So baby, don’t you lose your wandering shoes,
your heartache, your torment, your bliss.
“I Just Refuse” (An Ode to Epiphanies) begins with standup bass and drums, like Peggy Lee’s “Fever” with more oomph. The horns come in with a bluesy urban swing and I can’t wait for Bess to appear in a black dress loaded with glitter. Sure enough, she delivers a sexy, steaming performance highlighted by her syllabilization of the word “refuse” as in “I just refu-woo-woo-woo-woo-wooze” to sing the blues,” and a nifty, hard-plucked upright bass solo by Jeff Hanley. The horns and piano are pretty damned hot, too.
We cool off a bit with the introduction to ”Solidarity” (An Ode to Irony), which shifts to a hip-undulating Caribbean feel for the main part of the song. It’s a nice little break like a cool drink on a hot day. This leads to “One-Woman Band” (An Ode on Modern Dating), a track that is perfect for finger-snapping especially during Dave Cook’s piano solo. It’s followed by “Moving Forward,” which contains some wild, woolly and wonderful trumpet and saxophone interplay along with some of the strongest lyrics on the album:
And the only thing I hate about the city
is that I can’t take a walk and be alone.
So I try to close my eyes and fly but the noise
is so gritty, my wings get dirty and heavy
and come undone.
We broads inhabiting big cities can seriously relate to those lines.
“Crazytown” (An Ode to Prospects) opens with mute-altered trumpets, developing into a fascinating arrangement with a fab acoustic lead guitar solo from Al Street over a strong bluesy beat that puts you and leaves you in the mood. Bess’s lyrics are enticing, to say the least: “And if I give you just one chance to make it right/will I come back wet, rode hard and hung up nice?” Capping it off, Bess’ vocal here is so damned sexy that I feel an overwhelming urge to take her out on the dance floor and do a slow strip together as the tuxedo-and-evening gown crowd in the speakeasy melts away into irrelevance . . . did I mention she’s a seriously hot redhead?
I will now return to my appropriately professional demeanor.
“You Like It” (An Ode to Familiarity) is classic big band tune with a stop-time lyric kick in the lines of the verses that allows Bess to play with some double entendres, like “You like it when I lick . . . your stamp.” This one’s really a great dance number full of plenty of opportunities to for partner-twirling and limbo bends. We return to the Caribbean for “My Body Betrays Me” (An Ode to Instincts) where Bess indulges in 40′s-era lyric word play (“nicely, twicely”) describing the endless struggle between reason and desire with an almost guilty tone in her voice that I just adore.
For Happy regrettably has to end, in this case with “Jason’s Song” (An Ode in Honor of Jason Kenneth Finch and for Kathryn Lee Powell Finch Rulapaugh). A fascinating song framed between funereal church bells playing behind Bess’ vocal and church bells in the fade (where they surprisingly reappear after several seconds of silence), the groove to this song is one of the strongest on the record—somewhat surprising since the subject matter is grief and loss. When you remember that jazz is the music of New Orleans funerals, you begin to appreciate both the healing power of the music and the timing of the bells: when you think you’re over it, the feelings return. Seen from that perspective, “Jason’s Song” is a very moving and courageous piece of music.
For Happy is dedicated to Bess’ late mother, Happy McCrary. I love her dedication in the liner notes (“I fucking finished it, mom!”) and appreciate her love for her mother that fueled her spirit to bring this project through to completion. Bess told me that she’s returning to live performance after recovering from throat surgery, and if you hear she’s playing in your neck of the woods, don’t hesitate to grab some tickets. Bess McCrary will touch your soul and make your spirit soar.