First Impressions: Music for Betty by Nana Rashid

A slew of new and archival releases hit the digital shelves on Friday, including from Natalie Merchant, Neil Young, Kelsey Walden and former national youth poet laureate Kara Jackson. Plus, Brandee Younger’s jazzy R&B-inflected Brand New Life from last week is still calling my name. But the album front and center today is Danish jazz singer Nana Rashid’s beguiling sophomore set, Music for Betty.

Recorded with jazz trio Little North, the eight-track set features five stirring originals, the standards “Johnny Guitar” and “No Moon at All,” and a cover of Sade’s “Pearls.” It opens with “Poor Blue Betty,” from which the album takes its title. (According to the press release, “the album’s name is a tribute to the parts of ourselves we dismiss but still so badly desire as they are what make us whole.”)

The first thing one will notice: Rashid’s vocals, which conjure those of Nina Simone and, circa her early albums, Roberta Flack. Her dramatic intonations and flights of vocal fancy, such as during “Johnny Guitar,” are things of crystalline beauty. The second thing one should notice: The steadfast support of Little North (pianist Benjamin Nørholm Jacobsen, drummer Lasse Jacobsen and bassist Martin Brunbjerg Rasmussen). They provide a perfect foundation for Rashid to build upon.

The album’s piece de resistance is “Mother, Father,” which she co-wrote with Benjamin Nørholm Jacobsen. In the description attached to the YouTube lyric video, she explains that the lyrics are drawn from her own life, which finds her an outsider in both her Danish mother’s and Zanzibari/Omani father’s cultures. Above a martial drumbeat, she questions her ancestral bonds and hopes that “love will carry me to where I’m free.”  

The songs follow a similar sonic blueprint throughout, with chords lingering in the space between notes as if stuck in time. Tension comes from the interplay between Rashid’s hypnotic delivery and the band. When she sings “hallelujah” during “Pearls,” for instance, the band thunders in the background like a slow-moving storm. It’s quite cool. That song delves into the experiences of a woman in Somalia who “lives in a world she didn’t choose,” while “They Call It Love” dissects the (oft-hypocritical) demands placed upon women—“so much religion/and yet so little love”—everywhere. It’s taut and timely.

The set comes to a close with “Some Other Way,” which finds Rashid walking a tightrope: She hopes that her relationship will succeed but, simultaneously, wishes to find love again if it fails. As with Music for Betty as a whole, the music is never rushed, while Rashid’s vocals are akin to a star sparkling in the night sky.

It’s just a tremendous album. Whether accented by anger, pathos or love, Rashid’s delivery is spellbinding—and the songs are, too.

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