Bird of Many Feathers


Some critic I was reading recently (Jayson Blair alert: The following is not this writer’s original thought!) observed that the fiddle had emerged as the leading sonic indicator of feisty, you-go-girl attitude and independence.

Interesting theory, though to me this kinda stuff all sorta sounds like Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Which ain’t a bad thing, by the way. Born in Victoria, B.C., and a longtime resident of Toronto, Nelly Furtado is obviously not a Dixie chick. But being north of the border sure hasn’t stopped her—or her wildly inventive co-production wrecking crew, Track and Field—from incorporating staccato fiddle swoops with the same level of intuitive understanding and what-the-fuck- let’s-see-if-it-works abandon with which they also embrace turntable scratches, banjos, congas, tablas, beat boxes, fado, samba, trip hop, rock, and pop. You get the drift.

Her biggest, most straight-ahead hit may have been the Grammy-winning “I’m Like a Bird,” but as pint-sized Portuguese powerhouse Furtado declares in Folklore‘s jangling opener, “I’m not a one-trick pony” —and pity the fool who tries to categorize her. No doubt, many artists spin the globe in the hopes of branching out and hopefully even finding their own voice. And, to be sure, Nelly changes her steez the way some of us switch up our hair color. Yet her palpable coolness comes from how her own voice appears at home anywhere she chooses to kick it.

Past collabo partners have included Missy, Timbaland, and the Roots. This time she ups the ante by inviting the Kronos Quartet, Bela Fleck, and Caetano Veloso to get their freak on. Folklore may be more focused than Whoa Nelly‘s candy-coated culture clash, but mature doesn’t translate to dull: The sublime and swirling rocker “Picture Perfect” proves Nelly can wail with the best; in the two-stepping/beat-boxing single, “Powerless (Say What You Want),” she bites the hands that’ve fed her by admonishing, “Paint my face in your magazines/Make it look whiter than it seems”; “Explode” is a galloping, dramatic tale of teenage lust and danger. Armed with a Fendi bag and a fiddle, Nelly has figured out a way to find one’s bliss and shake one’s ass. Her grown-up pop still believes in girl power.