India.Arie, 'Testimony: Vol. 2. Love & Politics'
ESSENTIAL "Better Way"
Some music transforms when it goes from background accompaniment to front-and-center entertainment. Sharing space with clinking wine glasses at a dinner party or the friendly chatter of a barbecue, the sound of India.Arie is always welcome. As the neatly manicured coffeehouse-soul acoustic guitars, contemplative pianos, and gentle world-beat flourishes waft into your half-listening ears, the music evokes warm memories of Arie's quality influences. Stevie Wonder is a role model on the urgent yet lovely lament about the poor in "Ghetto." The tenderhearted Roberta Flack sounds like the template for the romantic ballad "He Heals Me." And Arie's obviously a Sade fan since she covers the singer's gently undulating "Pearls." But a good half of "Love & Politics" begins to wilt upon closer examination as Arie's blissed-out self-help affirmations posing as lyrics start to penetrate. "Life is a challenge not a competition/ You can still smell the roses and be on a mission," she sings on the hopeful bonus track "A Beautiful Day." But whether she's singing clunky therapy metaphors or spinning out more elegant turns of phrase, Arie's raspy voice is always in top form. Like-minded friends Musiq Soulchild and Keb' Mo' make cameos in the lovefest. (Out tomorrow) - SARAH RODMAN