Nelly Furtado, ‘Folklore’ (Dreamworks)
Pop radio is so appalling that even a modest charmer like Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” makes you kneel in gratitude. Her slurpy, slightly nasal tomboy flow suggested what Missy or Gwen’s often does: that an honest oddball had found herself in a hit song and decided to make it interesting. While it won her a Grammy, “Bird” was actually one of the less interesting songs on 2000’s multiplatinum Whoa, Nelly!, a debut that found the 21-year-old skipping through R&B and pop playgrounds spangled with unusual flavors — samples from South African minimalist composers, samba grooves, etc. It was glossy but fresh, and if it weren’t for that darned St. Louis rapper, she’d be the most famous mono-monikered global-pop phenom since Pele. The question, for a singer mixing it up with Timbaland and Paul Oakenfold but also getting props from easy-listening elders at VH1, was: Where to next?
Folklore finds yet another pop kid struggling to grow up. Furtado is still working with producers Track & Field (Gerald Eaton and Brian West), whose rare-groove-schooled arrangements madeWhoa, Nelly! sparkle. They’ve got resources now –instead of sampling the Kronos Quartet, they can just hire them, along with other NPR hipsters like banjo-fusionist Bela Fleck. AndFolklore‘s nicely realized conceit, involving identity and heritage, lets the multiculti Canadian Furtado get her Portuguese on. “Forca” (loosely translated: “Kickass”) has a chorus so catchy you hardly realize it’s not English; “Island of Wonder” is an elegant duet with Brazilian national treasure Caetano Veloso.
But while the vocals and arrangements are more ambitious and arguably better, there’s less free play, less of the goofiness and kewpie-dancehall scatting that defined her. You get a little on “Fresh off the Boat,” an export-ready immigrant anthem. But the voice on the power ballad “Try” could be almost any Lilith Fair lassie. Furtado’s certainly self-aware, and she’s got the defensive, stardom-critiquing sophomore songs — “One-Trick Pony,” “Powerless (Say What You Want)” — to prove it. But perhaps the lady doth protest too much. Fame is what you do with it, and fun is the best revenge.