Carmen Lundy - 'Code Noir'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Carmen Lundy, a veteran independent artist with well over a dozen records under her belt. She has been lauded by a bevy of publications including The New York Times, Downbeat, and The Washington Post, and her acting career has gone Off-Broadway taking lead roles in several notable productions. This last February, she released a new album entitled ‘Code Noir.’ Let’s explore it and see if it’s worth delving deep into.

‘Code Noir’ is a very soft-spoken record. Even from the opening notes of ‘Another Chance,’ Lundy croons in a surprisingly deep, bellowing voice that seamlessly wanders about a sparse jazz soundscape. This is dark, evening club jazz - the kind of music you’d find in a dimly lit piano bar in the late hours of the evening. ‘Another Chance’ is a compelling introductory number as well, I’d argue, because it’s somewhat less digestible than the track that follows it.

At no point on these songs does the band overpower Lundy. They clearly made a point to do that; the music accents her, not the other way around. The sophisticated jazz club sound is well arranged and prepared, with soft percussion bantering back and forth on the cymbals as the piano, guitar, and bass leads trade off sly, barely noticeable, but lovely riffs. Lundy even scats at one point on ‘Live Out Loud,’ another surprising revelation. Her sound, while deeply rooted in its inspirations, still sounds very contemporary.

The album does take a fascinating turn on its third track, however, with ‘Black and Blues’ taking an abrupt jump into scat-filled political intensity. It’s a scathing condemnation of the socio-political nature of the United States and its inability to clamp down on unnecessary police brutality. (Particularly toward communities of color.) It may very well be the album’s best song, especially in regard to the eclectic instrumental performance on behalf of the band. It’s borderline avant-garde.

‘Whatever it Takes’ is very reminiscent of Little Milton’s ‘We’re Gonna’ Make It,’ offering a reassuring helping hand toward a lover or friend experiencing similar hardship. It could be a love ballad, a statement of resilience in the face of social or personal strife, or just about anything else. The nylon string classical guitar performance on ‘Whatever it Takes’ is fantastic, too, offering a nice sonic contrast to the songs preceding it.

‘Afterglow,’ another love tune, has a wonderfully experimental jazz beat that keeps the listener on their toes throughout. It’s Lundy’s most vigorous outing of scat, and she shines powerfully on ‘Afterglow’ with one of her strongest performances on ‘Code Noir.’ In some ways, ‘Second Sight’ is a perfect spiritual companion to follow ‘Afterglow,’ too. It’s another soundscape of unconventional tempo and beat set to a smartly-penned love song.

While entirely pleasant, ‘The Island, The Sea and You’ is likely a track that could have been left on the cutting room floor of ‘Code Noir.’ Songs like ‘Live Out Out,’ ‘Black and Blues,’ and ‘Afterglow’ all have a compelling edge to them, whereas ‘The Island, The Sea and You’ can’t help but feel somewhat mundane and aimless in contrast. If you’re out for a slow dance at your beachfront resort on holiday, it’s not a bad song to accompany the evening, but it’s not a defining moment of the collection by any stretch.

There’s an emotional shift on ‘I Keep Falling,’ a song that houses some beautiful poetry that borders on melancholy at times. It’s a song that does a splendid job giving Lundy room to experiment with long-form lyricism, even if that does result in the track ending up being somewhat long-winded. The incredibly suave, stunningly written ‘I Got Your Number’ draws the listener right back in, though, making one of the more memorable statements of the latter half of ‘Code Noir.’

As the album begins to wind down, ‘You Came Into My Life’ offers some further nuance into the themes of love and relationships that Lundy explores in great depth the majority of the album. ‘Have a Little Faith’ is one of the most terrific emotional journeys on ‘Code Noir,’ particularly in the infectious choruses. The finale, ‘Kumbaya,’ digs its heels deep into African American roots influence, bordering on gospel in a gorgeous fashion. It’s a brilliant ending to the album that gives a glimpse into the lineage of music that lead to Lundy crafting her own original sound.

There are moments on ‘Code Noir’ that the collection runs longer than it needs to. This probably could have been tighter as eight or nine songs rather than twelve. With that said, the songs are by and large very, very good. Lundy hits the ball out of the park amidst a sea of other indie jazz acts that don’t come close to her level of prowess. ‘Code Noir’ is a beautiful experience every jazz fan should spend some time with this year.