Babble On 

Still not the "average girl in your video," neo-soul diva India.Arie goes Oprah on her sophomore album.

A decade ago, with fancier divas like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson ruling the airwaves and new jack swing's shiny suits and shinier beats reigning supreme over R&B, acoustic-guitar-bearing plain Jane India.Arie would have been seen as an apolitical Tracy Chapman --courting (mostly white) rock and folk fans. But the emergence of the neo-soul scene in the last half-decade has opened up the R&B market for artists as unique as this arty Southern belle, so Arie became a star on her own terms and among her own demographic.

She may yet be remembered as a one-hit wonder. But, if so, that one hit will live as something more than a mere novelty. The gently confrontational "Video" was a great single --a plainspoken reaction against hip hop's objectification of the female form and a necessary corrective to a culture that divides women into equally limiting categories (see the speech Taye Diggs' character gives on this subject in the recent hip-hop-oriented film Brown Sugar). "Sometimes, I shave my legs, and sometimes, I don't/Sometimes, I comb my hair, and sometimes, I won't," Arie sang for Everygirls everywhere. "I'm not the average girl from your video/My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes." The song was a colossal breath of fresh air despite its self-celebrating use of third person and the "because I am a queen" refrain, and because, as music, it made good on the genre-creating claim of Arie's debut album title: Acoustic Soul.

And so Arie carved a niche for herself in an increasingly crowded neo-soul landscape: She's Erykah Badu's granola sister. Where former comedy writer Badu is a little crazy and a lot idiosyncratic, Arie came across as a too-good-for-this-world messenger of positive self-esteem, all Oprah-style uplift. She's good for you.

The image worked. Arie's debut was lavished with seven Grammy nominations, and though it didn't win any of them, the attention pushed her record into the multiplatinum range.

For better or worse, Arie's latest, Voyage to India, takes dead aim at the new audience turned on to her through the Grammys. Arie's press kit gushes about her "simply stated yet profoundly powerful message -- Love yourself!" and Arie herself has said the album is about her "emotional and spiritual journey." And so Voyage to India completes a transition from neo-soul earth mama to new-age spiritual guide. This music is more pop- and light-jazz-inflected than "acoustic soul," and the debut's intermittent references to a musical lineage that included Sam Cooke, Charley Patton, and Memphis Minnie have been replaced by a series of pieces with the titles "Growth," "Healing" ("I know that spirit guides me and love lives inside me/That's why, today, I take life as it comes"), and "Gratitude." In other words, there's nothing here that would deter a wandering Celine Dion fan from branching out. Which probably shouldn't be a surprise coming from a goody-two-shoes who actually had a song titled "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom" on Acoustic Soul.

The power of positive thinking sends Voyage to India off the tracks frequently: "Get it Together" is peppered with potentially provocative lines like "No one can hurt you like your kin," but each setup devolves into generic self-help babble like "Life is a choice that you make/You can give or you can take" and "No matter what anybody says/What matters most is what you think of yourself." Given the musical transition away from Acoustic Soul's earthiness and the preponderance of names in the songwriting credits, one even wonders how much this Voyage is an extension of Arie's own vision: For all the ubiquity of shots of her lugging around that acoustic, none of the flashier guitar parts here seems to have been played by her.

But Voyage to India isn't a total loss. The lead single "Little Things" is a "Video" retread but does a solid job reestablishing Arie as an unpretentious voice of reason. And "Talk to Her" confirms that Arie's great subject is forcing her male contemporaries to treat women with dignity. ("Talk to her like you want somebody to talk to your mama/Don't get smart with her/Have a heart-to-heart with her/Just like you would with your daughter.") "Beautiful Surprise" and "The Truth" are engaging love songs, the latter taking the spiritualism and twisting it in unexpected ways --into a celebration of a gap-toothed man who treats his mama right. And most promising of all is the fact that one of the few sole Arie copyrights here, "Complicated Melody," is also the most interesting and unpredictable track on the record, a hymn to a love actually marked by a little idiosyncrasy. ("If he were an animal, he'd be an ass/'Cause he's so stubborn sometimes.")

If Arie might be a little too stuffy sometimes, the passel of opening acts scheduled to appear on her tour promise to be a bit more lively: British duo Floetry -- singer Marsha Ambrosius and rapper Natalie Stewart --have penned songs for the likes of Jill Scott, Bilal, Michael Jackson, and Glenn Lewis. They step out strongly on their recent debut, Floetic, which brings a bit more hip-hop flair to the neo-soul sound than Arie. Detroit's Slum Village hasn't made much of a commercial dent on the hip-hop scene yet but is recognized as a worthy inheritor of the Native Tongues mantle passed down from A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.


with Floetry and Slum Village

The Orpheum

Wednesday, November 13th

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