In 2004, producer Danger Mouse gained notoriety when he decided to release a free viral album that married contemporary hip-hop to classic rock.
As bold as it was experimental, The Grey Album took the a cappella vocals of Jay’Z’s The Black Album and mashed them up with instrumentals created from a variety of samples from The Beatles’ 1968 classic The White Album. The result was a richly layered compilation of tracks that not only complimented their respective genres, but also blurred the line between them to create a refreshingly original sound. And despite appeals from The Beatles’ copyright holders to take it down, The Grey Album went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed (even taking the #1 spot on Entertainment Weekly’s list of best albums of 2004) and influential albums of the new millennium.
Since The Grey Album’s release, more and more artists have opted to pay homage to music’s earlier days by blending their own sounds with those of decades past. Indie artists such as Camera Obscura and She & Him mix their Lite FM-ready folk-tinged sound with that of 1960s girl groups and nostalgic doo-wop. In 2006, Christina Aguilera released Back To Basics, an album that combined her pop-star-of-today persona with both that of a flapper and a WW II-era pin-up girl. The following year, British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse exploded onto the scene with her international smash single, “Rehab.” Full of soul, slick jazz and sass, Winehouse masterfully blended the defining elements of Motown with the attitude of contemporary hip-hop. Her success inspired a whole wave of “new vintage” musicians such as Adele, whose album, 21, has remained on the Top 20 Billboard chart eighty-two weeks after its release.
The latest entry in this parade of husky-voiced chanteuses is Pennsylvania-born ZZ Ward. Confident, aggressive and sexy, Ward’s music goes down as smoothly as the last shot of Jameson at the end of the night. Her self-described “dirty blues with beats” signature sound should answer any question about how a Dr. Dre-produced Joss Stone song would resonate.
On October 16th, Ward will be releasing her first album, Til The Casket Drops (via Hollywood Records). And earlier this month, the singer released a 4-track EP to give listeners a taste of what to expect from her eagerly anticipated debut. These two releases come following a busy summer in which she toured across the country with Fitz & The Tantrums and Allen Stone.
Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending a showcase that Ward put on at New York City’s singer/songwriter hot-spot Joe’s Pub. Gearing up to the release of Til The Casket Drops, the set list was comprised of a generous sampling of the album’s offerings.
Immediately getting the audience pumped up, Ward opened the show with her upcoming record’s title track. A stomping love song marinated in retro flavors, “Til The Casket Drops” found Ward soulfully pledging her lifelong commitment to her partner.
“You asked me how long I’d stay by your side, so I answered with only just one reply,” Ward sang, building up to the song’s warm, smoky chorus. “Til the casket drops, til my dying day, til my heartbeat stops, til my legs just break.”
On “Criminal,” Ward fused sultry nightclub jazz with ‘90s R&B in a way that would make you believe that Shirley Bassey and Lauryn Hill somehow had a lovechild. It’s basically what the James Bond theme Alicia Keys recorded (“Another Way To Die”) should have sounded like had it not been a collaboration with rocker Jack White.
Other standout selections from the evening included “Charlie Ain’t Home,” a cheeky modern response to Etta James’ “Waiting For Charlie To Come Home,” the somber and defeated break-up ballad “Last Love Song,” and the soaring and anthemic “Home,” which had the audience belting out the words to a song most were hearing for the very first time.
Yet no song had the crowd on its feet more than the one Ward played during her encore, “Blue Eyes Blind.” Clearly the track with the most mainstream radio potential from Til The Casket Drops, “Blue Eyes Blind” is an upbeat feel-good song that could easily do for Ward what “Mercy” did for Duffy. Showcasing the singer’s thick-as-honey voice and brazen swagger, this is a song that Ward will no doubt be closing her shows with for a long time to come.
With Til The Casket Drops, ZZ Ward has created an album that is as gorgeous as it is unique. It’s a record that will surely be remembered as one of the strongest debuts of the year.