On their fifth album since the late ’90s, this “rock-folk-jazz fusion” collective, which at one time featured Lynn Drury, has by now pared itself down to a jazz trio format, complete with upright bass and Johnny Vidacovich sitting in on drums. It puts the spotlight solely on remaining original member Jesse Maclaine and her unusual fusion of strong-yet-spacey female singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell’s sly and perceptive confessional meets Fiona Apple’s confrontational doomed romantic, with little hints of Tori Amos’ gonzo earth mother and Carole King’s practical warmth.
It’d be hard to fault Jesse for not having Joni’s novelist eye for detail, or Fiona’s grasp of her own psychic fault lines. Who does? But the degree of difficulty is often just too large for Maclaine to take on all by herself, especially since the new minimalist format and its attendant freedom—these 13 songs average six minutes apiece—force her to carry the full emotional weight. Her voice is expressive, and her lyrics can be engaging, but not to the extent of carrying the endless meandering of “So Cold” or “Move,” which is partially about “tigers reclining and dragons dining in purple caves with a great sword shining.” She gives that last phrase a goofy, Toriesque faux-Brooklyn delivery that she hasn’t earned the right to, and her technique is often just as annoyingly misused: like Joni, she swoops and dives and repeats rushed phrases, but unlike Joni, the words she’s choosing don’t call for that kind of emphasis. Mannerisms alone don’t equal depth.
Merely scaling her ambitions down a little works wonders, though. “You Don’t Need That Pill” is as direct and tough as its title, while the nicely sardonic “All Friends Here” is just hardheaded enough to form a nice contrast with its upbeat stroll: “They pick their opinions like they pick their noses.” Working some honest-to-goodness New Orleans piano tradition into “We’re All Millionaires” lets some air into her rather stuffy vision: “I can’t wait ’till I’m a millionaire / I’m gonna show the whole world how to care about each other … I’m gonna give it away / Well, most of it, anyway.” No one’s suggesting Maclaine give up her flights of fancy, but grounding them a little more often might give the rest of us a reason to latch on.