British-born bassist Sara Lee has compiled a pretty nifty résumé. She's worked with the likes of the B-52's, Gang of Four, Robert Fripp, Fiona Apple, Indigo Girls, and, most famously, Ani DiFranco. After two decades of keeping the low end locked, Lee has launched a solo career with the release of Make It Beautiful. And she's stocked the disc with an all-star cast of ringers, including DiFranco, keyboard whiz Ivan Neville, and long-time Van Morrison saxman Pee Wee Ellis.
Unfortunately -- and I'm just going to have to be blunt about this -- Lee herself lacks the vibrancy to carry the load as a frontperson. This is not to say that Make It Beautiful is a bad record. It's actually quite charming in spots. Songs such as the title track do a terrific job of melding chunky funk grooves with ambient dance production. The jaunty melody of "Traffic" unfurls in a wash of shimmering organ riffs (courtesy of Neville) and delightful percussive flourishes.
The basic problem is Lee's voice, which is thin and tentative, an instrument unworthy of the sonic embellishment her arrangements supply. "My Way," for example, is full of '70s style R&B sass. It has loads of layered guitars and keys; a horn chart worthy of Earth, Wind & Fire; and crisp drum work. But the vocal line, which should soar above this clamor with some semblance of glory, is timid and soulless. Lee's breathy delivery fares better on the brooding "Hood Over Hood," which is all fuzzy bass line and metallic clang, and on the ballad "All Cried Out." But the big numbers here never quite deliver. The funk feels a tad contrived, the songs a bit too diffuse.
Make It Beautiful is a pleasant record, the kind that grows more appealing with repeated listening. But I kept wondering what it might have sounded like with a true singer at the helm.
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