Like the Last Eavesdrop

Candid soprano from everywhere courts MTV mainstream

Something Dangerous, Natacha Atlas titles her new CD. Who's she kidding? This is her least French, least Arabic, least Euro, least funky—even her least solo—session. Until now, the most incandescent soprano this side of Lisa Gerrard, Loleatta Holloway, or Robert Plant has never duetted; here, she duets almost every track, zapping toward the hip-hop, dancehall, and new-jack mainstream.

Atlas had always confounded the mainstream. Resident of Belgium, performing in French-speaking lands, of ancestry both Arabic and Jewish, her voice both soft and fierce, Atlas on record hailed from everywhere. That she surfaced in the hit-oriented pop music world at all seemed accidental. Transglobal Underground, a 1990s British dance collaborative, took her up, perhaps as an answer to Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer whose Arabic-pop vocals put a surprise frosting on the Eurodisco and Eurofunk cake. As it turned out, Atlas's songs and singing style—part Arabic, part Euro, a touch Israeli, more than a touch of third-world exotica and Art of Noise memorabilia—shone far brighter amid all those eclectic (but chiefly Bollywoodish-meets-Eurofunk) Transglobal productions than anything Haza ever made. Heard best on Diaspora and Gedida, singing in French or Arabic, Atlas quivers, sighs, shimmers, and soars, every note crisp and pure; she turns this way and that, steadies herself, faints, cries, or simply muses, all of it front and center in the mix without a falter or a false move. To an American, Atlas's screechy, keening, melismatic interpretations of songs that sound blue in meaning but not at all blue in texture feel less heard than overheard. Listening means eavesdropping.

One longs almost in vain for that Atlas on Dangerous. Instead, one hears a newly public, made-for-television Atlas in which, when she isn't MTV-duetting, she's singing atmospheric lullabies in the manner of Donna Summer and Sarah Brightman, though less intensely. It's strange, and frustrating, to hear Atlas singing roundly, almost gently, less sexually revealing than ever, amid music she wants so badly to accommodate. When finally one reaches "This Realm" and "Le Printemps," in which she risks her privacy, the eavesdropper savors this more candid Atlas all the more. Same for "Like the Last Drop," a sumptuous piece of Mylene Farmer-ish Goth-rock operatica in which she sublimates both the ariatics of Brightman and the wordless ecstasies of Summer into that delicate, sharp, dark soprano horniness she alone commands—and triumphs.

 
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