Releasing a live performance as a second album, no matter how hot the live show, is usually fairly premature—without relying heavily on covers, it is difficult to cover up the paucity of original material. Some songs are bound to be less suited for live performance and, without irritatingly gimmicky treatment, others may stick too close to the studio originals to be worth a live revisitation. So, even for nu-soul prodigy Jill Scott, a live album such as Experience: Jill Scott 826+ is an ambitious follow-up to 1999’s acclaimed Who Is Jill Scott? This is particularly true as Experience relegates all the new studio material to the “+” disc, a trick usually reserved for substandard B-side material needed to beef up an ailing compilation.
All of which makes the success of Scott’s new album all the more imperative and all the more impressive. Her arrival a couple of minutes into the second track, “Long Walk,” is heralded by the deeply felt and sung line, “You’re here / I’m pleased / I really dig your company,” which sets the tone for the entire live disc. Scott’s high-energy performance emphasises the vibe between performer and her audience. “Long Walk” hits its peak pretty quickly and, as with the live disc as a whole, it seems at times to run out of places to go once it has hit that emotional and musical high. Scott has a highly impressive voice and vocal range, but there is little demonstration of the more subtle, sexy textures so beloved of Erykah Badu and used to great effect on Scott’s debut album. The exception is the playful “Do You Remember,” which allows Scott to give free reign to her wit as she cuts an ex-lover down to size: “You acted like your…hmmmm / Didn’t smell / Well I was there / Always been there / I remember that it did.”
The live arrangements, courtesy of Scott’s highly talented band Fatback Taffy, manage to be fresh without being contrived, although the songs could sometimes be wittier by being briefer. The parenthetical postscripts to many of the titles serve as all the explanation the listener is given for songs that steadfastly refuse to last less than six or seven minutes, as with the “Love Rain (Suite),” which clocks in at 12 1/2 minutes. Scott’s talent and her connection with her audience are apparent, but the disc remains a little too shrill and insufficiently distinct from her first album to stand up to multiple listens.
In contrast, however, the second, diminutively titled “+” disc is sheer, unadulterated pleasure. Here, Scott digs deep into the bag of Baduisms and comes up with her own brand of sweet, sweet soul. This disc is so understated and mellow that it almost sounds as though a different singer has commandeered the spotlight after the exhausting pitch of the live material. “Gotta Get Up” is a classic soul song that might have been a Curtis Mayfield cover were it not for the reference to “staying at home and playing video games.” Even the additional live track, “Thickness,” is shot through with a profound sense of sympathy that verges on grief, a stark contrast to the sassy attitude of the other performances. “Thickness” is the emotional high point of the album, setting the harrowing story of a young girl’s sexual exploitation to a lugubrious bassline and mournful horns. The tale of a woman who’s been “saturated with self-hatred” might sound trite, but it is treated with an emotional depth rarely seen in modern soul as Scott and her back-up singers conclude by mourning, “Let her be elevated.”
“Gimme” and “High Post Brotha,” which benefit from an incisive cameo by Common, both showcase a talent for toying with the nuances of electronic music that was only hinted at on the previous album (though the dance remix of “He Loves Me” seems pretty pointless). “Gimme” features Scott wailing the title like a demented but funky child, to great effect, while her backing singers echo the demand. And not one of these songs, with the notable exception of the 11-minute “Thickness,” lasts much longer than the five minutes it takes to get a groove going. Now that we have an idea of who Scott might be, it’s a pleasure to experience her classy, renovating take on soul music, even if her live show is best experienced in person.
JILL SCOTT 826+