There’s always that one album I pick up at Cornerstone that somehow seems to dominate my post-Cornerstone listening. A few years ago it was Pedro the Lion’s It’s Hard To Find A Friend, the year after Unwed Sailor’s Firecracker EP. This year, however, it’s Surround Me, a CD that sounds decidedly at odds with much of the stuff I heard this year. And, as things like this usually go, it was all an accident.
My friends and I were planning on catching a bit of Over the Rhine’s acoustic set before heading over to the Main Stage for Pedro the Lion. We just happened to walk in on the tail-end of Riki Michele’s performance, and I was immediately hooked. Here was something chilled-out, vibed-up, and smooth like that, a blend of jazz, trip-hop, and downtempo music that was actually fun to listen to. I felt like I had stepped out of hot, dusty campground and into a posh, downtown club as Michele and her bandmates grooved away onstage. Three songs was all it took for me to get this CD, and so far, it’s rarely left my CD player for too long.
Although Michele may best be known for her work in Christian alt-rock pioneers Adam Again, Surround Me delves into trip-hop and subtle electronica flourishes, funky atmospheres, and Michele’s smooth vocals. The result is a disc that sounds not unlike a less-lovelorn Everything but the Girl or pre-Magnificent Tree Hooverphonic.
Although “Mystery in Me” is a fine enough opening track, the party doesn’t really get started until “She Said (Grandma’s Words).” Over spiraling icy electronics, hip-hop organs, and jazzy beats, Michele sings “If that’s what you want/You can do what you want/It’s your happiness.” Elsewhere, “Treasure You” combines Björk-like electronics with the album’s predominant trip-hop stylings, and also features some of the album’s most striking lyrics (written by The Choir’s Steve Hindalong). An ode to love, Michele sings “I have heard violins play/Sweet but not so fine/As when you said you would be mine/If I were drenched in diamonds/Falling from above/I’d be so poor without your love.”
But lest you think the album is nothing but lovey-dovey songs with a 21st century edge, Michele mines the imagery of the Psalms on “Things I Mean,” combining lyrics like “Take the things I say/And bind them with your truth and grace/That will never tear apart” with a dense Bowery Electric-esque atmosphere. Elements of dub filter into “We Take It On,” whereas the album’s closing track takes on a more distant feel, with swirling beats and electronic bird sounds as Michele intones “I can see a light/See a light/Surround Me/Surround Me” (and her references to “paths of purification” feel almost David Sylvian-esque).
It might be tempting to just write this off as another attempt to create some sort of “Adult Alternative” album utilizing sounds that had their origins in British clubs and house parties… but it’s too mature for that. At times, the album does get bogged down in all of its sentimentality, and an acoustic ballad like “Forever Bright” throws the album’s pace off a bit. But Michele’s lovely vocals are able to make pretty much anything very listenable, regardless of how sappy it might be.
Lest you think this is a completely solo outing, it’s impossible to ignore the contributions of Michele’s backing band. Julian Kindred deserves some special notice, since he contributes many of the electronics and textures that really define this album’s sound. And regardless of whether you’re in a hot, dusty tent, your bedroom at 2:00am, or a hip lounge sipping a martini, the sounds of Surround Me are a pretty enjoyable listening.