On the cover of her new Maverick Records album Bitter, singer/songwriter Me'Shell Ndegeocello lies in woeful repose, crumpled on a bed like a carelessly cast-off blouse. In stark contrast, the back cover features a photo of the singer staring mirthfully into the camera.
Like its ambiguous cover art, Bitter is a record of contrasts: lovelorn ballads followed by sensual funk shuffles; folk-inflected tracks proceeded by neo-classical instrumentals. Lushly appointed with strings, piano and other acoustic instruments, the album possesses a philosophic resonance that's apparent in song titles like "Sincerity," "Grace" and "Loyalty." Lyrical and alluring, "Bitter" is an intensely personal examination of modern love and betrayal.
For her part, Ndegeocello describes the album as a back-to-basics recording devoid of pretension. "I wanted to make something people could get into texturally," the singer says. "Simplicity is a gift, and that's what this album is all about."
To capture the various moods of her new songs, Ndegeocello recruited some of the music industry's most reputable musicians, including multi-instrumentalists Wendy & Lisa and percussionist Abe LaBoriel, Jr. "With my first two albums, I was in my own little world," Ndegeocello explains. "I wanted to be with other people this time, and have them express themselves too. It's nice to have their spirits on the record."
"Bitter" marks a dramatic about-face for Ndegeocello. Her 1993 debut album, Plantation Lullabies, heralded the arrival of an exultant funk goddess. Defiantly retro, the record possessed an organic sound far removed from the automated r&b favored by urban radio. Ndegeocello parlayed the album's critical success into a triumphant tour. In concert, she proved to be a potent triple threat: a riveting singer/songwriter whose nimble bass playing recalled funk legends like Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins.
Ndegeocello's fortunes ascended even higher in 1994 when she joined rocker John Mellencamp for an interpretative recording of Van Morrison's '70s classic, "Wild Night." Her 1996 sophomore effort, "Peace Beyond Passion," was hailed as a spiritual masterwork steeped in biblical imagery.
With the release of her new album, Ndegeocello solidifies her reputation as the thinking person's funk performer. In an effusive review, Billboard described Bitter as "a brilliant, fully-realized work," while Newsweek, Vibe and Jane magazine crowned the record Album of the Year.
by Bruce Britt