Cassandra Wilson: Silver Pony

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Cassandra Wilson: <i>Silver Pony</i>

Not double live… just half

Cassandra Wilson gets sole billing on Silver Pony, but her backing band ought to get their names on the LP spine as well. They’re the true stars of this intriguing album, half of which was recorded during a recent European tour and the other half at Piety Street Recording in New Orleans. That hybrid is especially apt for showing off the musicians’ virtuosity, not only their soloing chops but also their collective talent for creating and sustaining dark moods in which Wilson can relate her tales of death and romance.

It’s never particularly obvious which tracks on Silver Pony were recorded live and which were captured in the studio, which is both disappointing and admirable. Wilson and her band are all reluctant to play up the novelty of the concept, even if that means its creation has little bearing on its sound, aside from some scattered applause. In either setting, though, they stretch out casually, unraveling the tunes and then carefully, affectionately stitching them back together.

Not surprisingly, the best tracks are also the longest. Wilson’s mournful vocals give sorrowful shape to “Went Down to the St. James Infirmary,” then the band transform the song into a languid, cautious jam—part funeral march, part chase-scene soundtrack. After Marvin Sewell scrawls out a lengthy, bluesy intro, “Saddle Up My Pony” establishes a spry trot, with percussionist Lekan Babaola tapping out a hoofbeat rhythm and Jonathan Batiste festooning the song with ambient piano runs. That nearly 10-minute run-time gives them a chance to crawl inside the song and hang out a while.

Wilson’s smoky voice has only grown warmer and more expressive as she’s grown older, accruing gravity and authority with the years. Yet, she’s merely a support player on these songs, one ace musician among several. It’s a testament to her rapport with her backing band that she’s willing to level the hierarchy on stage and in the studio, but there’s still a friction on Silver Pony, a competition for primacy that enlivens the album. On opener “Lover Come Back to Me,” she coos a simple, two-syllable refrain that becomes the song’s surest hook, but almost immediately Sewell mimics her vocal on guitar, essentially taking over her part and ushering her to the side of the stage.

Oddly, those songs that feature Wilson most prominently, including “If It’s Magic” and “Sunrise,” make the weakest impressions; they’re lovely and moody, yet lack the exciting unpredictability of the other tracks. Wilson and her band thrive on musical democracy, where each instrument—even the most famous—gets an equal say in the song.