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“Irresistible: class with an edge,” Matthew Cooke of Amazon.com writes in a Best of 2000 Editor’s Pick for St. Germain’s Tourist, and if that makes him a yuppie, at least he’s honest. Class with an edge: alive and off-center but nary a foul breath. The hook is the illusion of the organic, the projection of a kindred interiority into crass environments. The forms change, so where Muddy Waters donned overalls in the 1960s while touring Britain, Johnny Cash sings Nick Cave and Will Oldham songs for his supper in 2000. But I’m interested here in music a shade more cappuccino-friendly. St. Germain is NPR techno, ideal for L.A.’s Morning Becomes Eclectic show on KCRW. David Gray is a Celtic wannabe with a claim to the earnest half of the Dave Matthews set. Jill Scott pins a Roots badge on her decorous soul. All three are small-scale critical and commercial hits. See, you teen-pop and rap-rock skeptics? Quality can too sell, especially when packaged as such.
The gimmick with Tourist, the second album by Ludovic Navarre, is that every song is an excursion into a different African-diaspora genre: jazz, Caribbean, r&b, Latin jazz, blues, house, dub, funk, and wherever you slot the unfortunate “So Flute.” But the CD sounds of a piece, too, a compound of samples and live Parisian musicians composed enough, in both a jazz and a club sense, to make Blue Note’s first excursion into this domain, US3, seem like schlock. It’s music for people whose beyond-postmodern convolutions now demand the auteurist inauthentic—background textures with a persuasive sense of design rather than trashiness or rainforest ambience. This predisposition used to be called Quango, but where that label’s compilers culled widely to achieve the effect, Navarre pulls it off virtually solo. True, when he needs a little vivacity he samples John Lee Hooker or Blue Note vocalist Marlena Shaw, or hires Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. But the nut is that St. Germain provide an individualized sense of order and care without demanding to be heard as personal expression.
It’s possible to call David Gray’s music a natural refinement of Everything but the Girl’s club-informed song-pop, but just as arguable that he’s working changes on stuff like Bruce Hornsby’s eternally bland “The Way It Is.” Gray, a singer-songwriter whose romanticism led him from Manchester to Wales, recorded White Ladder on his own shilling back in 1998, emphasizing stripped-down arrangements featuring the cool, jittery pulsations of his partner McLune on drums and bass. The album charted first in Ireland, then in Britain, and now gradually in the U.S. on his touring sponsor Dave Matthews’s ATO label. And deservedly so: “Please Forgive Me” is a fetching love song with Dylanesque chord changes, “Babylon” a poignant monster chorus, “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” the Van Morrison-tinged pastoralization of a Soft Cell original. Gray’s voice is pure comfort food as he warbles, “It takes a lotta love these days to keep your heart from freezing/To keep your spirit free.” White Ladder is spare and elegant, but at its core it’s an emotional massage for corporate mushbrains who’d unwind to Dan Fogelberg if their need for social differentiation didn’t push them to keep Travis on display.
The charm of Jill Scott is that she’s bourgie and boho in equal proportions: Listen to how she turns cleaning her house into the sensual act of an Isadora Duncan in “The Way.” The thank-you list in the credits includes her eighth-grade English teacher and the Canadian cast of Rent. As a singer, she’s a self-conscious poet, setting lovelorn scenarios in a world where you listen to hip-hop coming home from the theater or symphony. (Why not? Don’t you?) When she hones this sensibility into a playful lyric, the results can be as bravura as anything released this year, like “Exclusively,” where she rolls out of bed after sex, and the woman at the grocery store clucks at her purchases and IDs the man she’s about to make breakfast for by smell. Or “Love Rain,” in which a cad picks her up talking Mumia, reparations, and vintage sneakers.
Scott, a Philadelphia native, got noticed when she wrote “You Got Me,” the Roots hit sung by Erykah Badu. She’s not as innately bizarre as Badu—Scott’s pose seems more stylized, like she’s itemizing her credentials—and the grooves her producers have come up with don’t cut as deep as Badu’s latest. More variety along the lines of the algebraic flamenco-funk “One is the Magic #” would have kept sequences like “He Loves Me” and “It’s Love” from bogging down. But Scott is canny. She speaks and sings her lyrics, knows how to hit every word like it’s capitalized one moment, then croon wordless passion; she segues from biblical citation to pulling out her earrings and going off in a rival’s face. This year, she’s the class of the classy.