Sweet Honey in the Rock
It's not easy to believe that the a cappella sounds of Sweet Honey in the Rock displayed in "Twenty-Five" are the result of 25 years of practice and accumulation. This complex melding of distinct female voices, of powerful melodic lines conveying impassioned social justice sentiments, seems more the product of geologic time, the work of eons, resulting in a sound with the solidity of a mountain, a forest, a river, or maybe just people, just us.
"Twenty-Five" begins with "We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For," a hypnotic chant grounded by quiet percussion, the title reiterated and permutated in a steadily increasing chorus of voices, each retaining its individuality while blending into a coherent whole. "Chant" goes further yet, simple vocables muttered, sung, yodeled into a seemingly chaotic, primordial fabric from which the listening ear plucks mercurial themes, birds of song in shifting, evanescent beauty, a musical evocation of Plato's metaphor of ideas. Melody settles down a bit in "Battered Earth," a conceit of a planet in flight from its human tormentors, and the traditional "Motherless Chil'" is rendered at stately length, embellished by a quavering chorus and vocal bass runs. Elaborated vocal instrumentation also underlies Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," wonderfully expressive lead vocals lending new meaning to roots reggae. "Greed" gets a bit preachy in its portrayal of avarice as a sort of external infectious parasite, but remains good listening, and an articulate expression of the band's characteristic moral outlook. In "Sound-Bite From Beijing," women are rising from despair, emerging solidarity musically illustrated by voices uniting in chorus, hints of melodic dissonance suggesting diversity, individuality within the harmony, an impressive musical achievement.
As with previous Sweet Honey recordings, "Twenty-Five" is an intensely political and moral statement, what once might have been termed protest music, save that it celebrates as often as it dissents. The moral positions are stark, debatable, and prone to generate both intense approval and opposition in listeners, but neither response to this engaged and engaging music can detract from Sweet Honey in the Rock's glorious vocal arrangements and performances. - Jim Foley