Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Meshell Ndegeocello – Waterfalls

An old favorite becomes a new favorite.


Alfred Soto: Sung as a warning, arranged as a prayer.

Thomas Inskeep: Meshell Ndegeocello’s new album of ’80s & ’90s R&B covers, Ventriloquism, is pretty much perfect; she takes a batch of songs, long lived-in, and adds her own life/experience to them, in the process creating something altogether unique and fresh. Case in point is her take on TLC’s 1995 #1 “Waterfalls,” a song so iconic it’d be easy to get lost in its legacy, but Ndegeocello doesn’t. She alters a few lyrics — most notably, changing the second line of the original “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why/three letters took him to his final resting place” (those “three letters” being HIV) to “May we all find peace in our final resting place,” taking the verse from specific to universal. Musically, Ndegeocello and co-producer/keyboardist Jebin Bruni, along with her longtime touring band, have put a hushed, almost Americana-like spin on “Waterfalls,” turning it into a woozy ballad, with an emphasis on a finger-picked acoustic guitar. It’s a drastic makeover, but it works far better than you can even imagine. (Or even I imagined, and I’m a long-time fan.) 

Katherine St Asaph: The original song is a [10], obviously, and this isn’t as pointless as the Stooshe cover, because Meshell Ndegeocello doesn’t pretty up the vocal. But if I didn’t know this was her, I’d assume it was some late-’90s bowdlerizing-via-cover, complete with excised HIV references, into chill acoustica.

Julian Axelrod: The other day I found myself at a sushi restaurant that exclusively played white guy acoustic covers of contemporary pop hits. It brought back that age-old question: Why do these exist? What’s the audience for these bland recreations of songs everyone sick of years ago? As far as covers go, Ndegeocello’s stands head and shoulders above anything I heard that day. Where TLC’s original soars on the strength of its chorus, this version ambles and drifts, gently returning to the refrain like a signpost on the side of a trail. The whole affair has a hazy sunset vibe, with a weary tone that reflects the narrator’s concern. But while everything about this is well-executed, it never fully justifies its existence. This feels like something I’d hear in a dentist’s waiting room, making a mental note to listen to the original when I get home.

Micha Cavaseno: There’s a certain irony in “Waterfalls,” a song about people going wayward and astray, being the lead single for Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover album. Ndegeocello has proven worryingly adept at the art of reinterpretation, most recently when she managed to abstract the Whodini classic “Friends” into a Frippian monstrosity of malignant anxiety. I say ‘worrying’ because her own skills of songwriting, musicianship, and composition for herself and her powers of reinterpretation occasionally feel like rivals that have to be treated with deference in lieu of one another. It’s one of those senses of novelty that don’t always make her feel like the essential artist she should be viewed as, but instead as a further and further marginal act lost to the easy reductive canonization of your Soulquarian camp. Nevertheless, “Waterfalls” is essentially Meshell demonstrating the  TLC classic can easily serve its purposes as a post-Zeppelin III lumber; the kind of record younger festival rock bands do originals of with less sense of purpose and craft yet always receive further praise. Bittersweetly, this reimagining sharpens the details in how capable an artist Ndegeocello is, and how irritating her career position feels.

Edward Okulicz: It’s an unimpeachably classic song, and lovingly rearranged too, though now sitting a little close to easy listening for my taste. But it’s nice on the ears, and given real intimacy with the gentle reading of the (slightly altered) lyrics. Whether you like or love it depends on your idea of singing a cautionary tale as a lullaby. I think that in adding something, other things have been lost to slight negative effect, so I just like it. Subduing that chorus by putting it to sleep, and swapping out the aqueous tone of the original are artistic choices, they’re just not entirely successful. That said, it’s “Waterfalls,” sung by Meshell Ndegeocello and handled with care — it can’t really miss.

Will Adams: I can’t say I’ve ever wondered what it’d sound like if Zero 7 covered “Waterfalls,” but at least now I do.

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