Along with a handful of other journalists, Okayplayer was invited to an intimate listening session for Esperanza Spalding‘s new LP Radio Music Society earlier this evening, hosted by Pharrell Williams‘ alcoholic milkshake creation Qream. We musta came on the wrong night, though, because what we got was a screening of Esperanza Spalding’s new film Radio Music Society. Turns out Esperanza has shot a video for every one of the 12 tracks on the LP–which play seamlessly as one hour-long movie. What follows is a track-by-track synopsis of the sights and sounds of RMS, as we experienced it (song titles are best guesses because the music in the film does not follow the album track order–we will update as we get corrections).
1. “Radio Song” – This is clearly a template for the whole album; smooth, accessible jazz fusion but with the kind of complicated arrangement incorporating multiple changes of mood and tempo that is almost unheard of in pop music these days. The filmic conceit revolves around a cross-section of ordinary fools stuck in a traffic jam as the melody coming over the you-know-what gradually transforms everyday stress into a kind of euphoria. The visual is somewhat counterintuitive for a song that is marked by it’s sweeping movements, bridges, passages–all suggesting the changing scenery of a long journey, rather than being stuck in place with wheels spinning. The saving grace is of course Esperanza herself, radiant and charismatic with her backlit Angela Davis natural, looking like she should be covering herself with honey on an Ohio Players album sleeve instead of delivering a vocal concerto.
2. “Can’t Help It” – Spalding’s sublime remake of the Michael Jackson x Stevie Wonder composition starts with an early morning snuggle-fest with a tatted-up male fantasy figure, which quickly gives way to bisexual daydreams that continue to distract Esperanza through the rest of the day. This song is easily one of the strongest and paradoxically the edgiest in its visual treatment–a departure from an LP that is only criticizable for being as smooth as the chocolate & strawberry Qream I’m knocking back with a few pink and green macaroons.
3. “City of Roses” – A dreaming interlude in an airport brings Esperanza to Oregon, on a drive to Portland, a backdrop of beautiful nature, diminutive painted-ladies houses and a ballet of pastel-colored umbrellas. We end in a street concert, a motif that repeats throughout the film.
4. “Endangered Species(?)” – A haunting North African gnawa bassline carries us to a beach (maybe in Barcelona?) then gradually morphs into an upright jazz bass in a way reminiscent of the early “world music” experiments of Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders. Newspaper reports gradually transform the idyllic vacation scene into a war-torn nightmare as headlines come to life in a surprisingly coherent fever dream–the most visually dynamic part of the film, incorporating explosions and layered news footage of military helicopters and women in burqas. At some points it seems Spalding is melodically ‘reading’ actual headlines, making them into a sort of tone-poem.
5. “Hold On” (or maybe “Vague Suspicions”?) – Starting out with torch song vamps that grab you as hard as any rhythm yet heard, this evolves into a sort of lovely suspense music as Esperanza waits (literally) for a love interest who is waiting on tables in a cafe. A card game becomes a game of solitaire for our heroine when the waiter’s boyfriend shows up, kings and queens coming face up out of the deck in both pairs and couples, perhaps symbolizing the dual nature of sexuality?
6. “Let Her” – A radio dial interlude brings us to a funky drum and bass arrangement, as Esperanza provides a soundtrack to her neighbor’s melancholy over an absent lover. An interstitial sequence of taxis, subways and apartment hallways underscores that one of the main drivers of this movie is the (well-founded) premise that it is very easy watching Esperanza Spalding do almost anything. The camera is not mad at her.
7. “Cinnamon Tree” – Spalding arrives late to a gig only to wow the all-female band she’s auditioning for with this charming song. In a departure from the tone of the rest of the film, this section is marred (IMO) by Disney-ish animations of swirling cinnamon that look straight out of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch ad. It can’t ruin the song, though, which is Esperanza at her best, channeling the spirit of a timeless Minnie Ripperton ballad.
8. “Crowned & Kissed” – More dreams on the subway lead to a dance performance, and our ambiguously gay waiter reappears as a ballet-dancing monarch.
9. “Land of the Free” – a spare, organ-backed passage that begins with a judge’s gavel slamming down and handcuffs clicking shut, the rest is a meditation in a prison cell.
10. “Black Gold” – I don’t have to tell you about this one, you can see it here.
11. “Smile Like That” (?) – Esperanza reunites with her tattooed, dreadlocked cuddle-buddy at a club, only to watch his flirtation with a stunning female bartender heat up while she is performing onstage, trapped in the spotlight. The tone changes and the scenario complicates itself when her daydream girlfriend shows up in the audience too. In the end, she continues her melody on the bass alone in her dressing room, seemingly content with her music as mr. man leaves with his new love interest, and the narrative ends on a bittersweet note.
Cut to multiple images of radios with dials in French, English and other languages all tuning simultaneously. Cut again to an empty microphone. Somebody cuts the lights off and the movie’s over.
That’s what I got–obviously from the track numbering, I misplaced a track somewhere but again, we will add info as we get it.