Lelia Broussard - Lil-Yah (Leliasmusic.com, 2005)
Lil-Yah, the first full length CD by Louisiana native and current Philadelphia resident, Lelia Broussard, is such an amazingly excellent debut that I am constantly thankful to have found this extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter at the outset of her career. We find new artists and new music all kinds of crazy ways, and in this case it was the happenstance of a post on the WXPN message board during last fall's 885 countdown by Mary Broussard, Lelia's mom and manager or "momager" as Lelia sometimes refers to her, that led me to Lelia's website. I've got some great things to say about this record, so to illustrate I would suggest opening another browser on your computer and go to Lelia's MySpace page and listen to the three or four songs posted there or go to her website for samples of all the songs while you read the following.
Self-released last November, Lil-Yah is eleven tracks of pure soul/pop perfection. These tunes run a gamut of styles and influences that includes 70's soul, Philly soul, jazz, blues, acoustic singer-songwriter, pop, and hip-hop, all mixed and filtered through Lelia's Lousiana sensibility into a personal style of pop music that is uniquely her own. While her voice and guitar work is equally accomplished and appealing, while the arrangements, performances by her excellent band, and the production on this record is as good as you could ever hope to hear, the single most amazing element in this whole project is the quality of the songwriting.
Let's start with the last track on the record, a cover of "I Can't Make You Love Me." Bonnie Raitt's version has become a modern standard, and Lelia takes this great song and does a superb version with a beautifully simple arrangement of piano, organ and percussion, and wrings every bit of soulfulness out of every line. It's a stellar performance, and a cover that both respects and surpasses the original, and yet as great as this track is, the rest of the record is even better.
Nine of the remaining ten songs were written by Lelia, and here is where her greatest asset is revealed. "All I Do" starts the record with an uptempo romp that is so hook-laden that you could hear it a hundred times and not tire of it; this is not just supposition, when you go to her website you are greeted with this song every time. The acoustic and electric guitars combine with the bass and drums to propel the song while the organ and the vocal offer a slice of pure joy for all of three minutes and thirty-one seconds.
"That Boy" is a fully evolved pop song that perfectly captures the teenage dynamic of a relationship gone wrong. When the chorus kicks in with "but I'm standin' on the corner, really hopin' that 'cha don't, that 'cha don't see me oh baby, don't let me, don't let me, don't let me, no don't let me talk to that boy, I don't wanna talk to that boy, said even if I try, even if I choke up, still say no-no-no-no-no-no-no" the songwriting, the performance and the production combines to create a killer track that one could imagine Destiny's Child would love to record, and one that if released as a single would totally leave the entire realm of commercial pop music in the dust.
As if that weren't enough, "That Boy Remix" shows up as track six, taking an already great tune and improving it further with a rap by Kuf Knotz that turns the song into a dialogue between the singer and Knotz as the subject boy. When Lelia sings "I'm standin' on the corner, really hopin' that 'cha don't, that 'cha don't see me" Knotz answers back "I'm lookin' right at you" and "I see you." The song takes off from there with such a creative and well written rap, so perfectly enmeshed with the song that it can't help but open the minds of those who think they don't like rap. This tune adorned Lelia's MySpace page for a good long time and is another one that sounds better and better even after hundreds of plays.
"He Makes Me Smile" is one of the sweetest love songs you'll ever hear, another stellar performance by Lelia and her band with great arrangement and production. Her live peformance of this song with nothing but her acoustic and Jef Lee Johnson's electric guitars suggests that the beautiful harmonica by Howard Levy might be superfluous, but it adds to the overall joy of the tune. Another gem.
It's almost impossible to single out best songs when they're all as good as they are on this CD, but the artistic centerpiece of this record would have to be "Rise" in which Lelia serves notice to the world that she's going to be huge and that she's going to do it on her terms: "They want to tell me who I should be, everybody wants to tell me what is best for me, you should play more rock, more pop, more R and B, what do they really care, what do they care about me, but I gotta be free, I gotta be I, I gotta be me, well I'm gonna rise..." Wonderful production touches abound, including a nice soulful inflection when she sings "R and B" followed by a nifty guitar line to match. When she gets to the chorus, "I'm gonna rise" the full band kicks into crescendo mode, nicely amplifying the message of the song musically. This is a young artist's musical manifesto, an awesome piece of work.
"Livin' It Up" incorporates blues, jazz, and some New Orleans musical influences into a concoction that also references her recent residence, "Philadelphia, you brought me some hard times, but I made it through, I made it through, and I'm living it up." Once again the arrangement and production are just perfect for the song. "Happy People" is another good example of how Lelia effectively mixes the genres and comes out with a super appealing tune with a joyful and intensely soulful vocal performance. One could go on and on and also say similar things about "I'll Be" and "Somebody to You."
Which brings us to the next to last song on the record and the only other one she didn't write, that being "Business of Love," co-written by Philadephia neighbor and longtime tunesmith Phil Roy. This is an organ based bluesy jazz tune that artfully plays off Lelia's youthfulness with lines like "I'm just a baby in this business of love." This is a masterful piece of songwriting, matched only by a dazzling performance by Lelia, her band and the ideal production that characterizes this entire record.
Perfect albums are a delight and a rarity in this world, and Lil-Yah is all that. Based on the arrangements and the overall sound of this record, one could not overstate the contribution of producer Glenn Barratt, all the backing musicians on the record, and the seemingly world class studio, Morningstar Studios located right here in the Philadelphia suburb of Spring House, PA. The credits show that in addition to writing, singing, and playing guitar, Lelia was intimately involved in the recording process as co-producer, and co-arranger with Barratt, and even did some additional mixing.
Word is that this album is to be reconfigured soon for national release with a some new songs added, some songs remixed and some songs dropped including "Business of Love." What plans the Lelia brain trust may have for "Business of Love" are unknown, but this tune is such a treat that I would encourage anyone reading this to go immediately to Lelia's website and order the original release of Lil-Yah while you still can, and if she comes anywhere near your town this summer, whether it be playing Wal-Mart stores or elsewhere, go see her. Talent this huge won't be playing small venues for very long. Photos are © Lelia Broussard from her press kit.