TALLINN - How about "cool and loungy?" Or "down-tempo and urbane?" I was looking for easy labels - always a tricky exercise - to hang on Hedvig Hanson's international debut album, "What Color is Love?" At last I finally settled on the two that hit me on the first listen: "sophisticated and sleepy."
For anyone who's new to this patch of Europe, Hedvig Hanson is a much-loved Estonian jazz singer/songwriter whose work over the past few years has earned her "Best Album" and "Best Female Artist" titles at the Estonian Music Awards. More recently, Estonian Radio named her "Musician of the Year" for 2003, and she's spent these last few months touring Germany, Austria, Spain and Scandinavia.
And she's definitely well-poised to become even more of an international figure - listening to any of her English tracks you'd never guess she was from the Baltics. Her influences are soul and funk. Her childhood hero was Whitney Houston. Some of her sounds are Brazilian. With her rich voice, she sounds like she comes straight out of the New York jazz scene. One friend described her as a "sugar free Norah Jones."
"What Color is Love?" is Hanson's third solo album. Released last September, it's clearly aimed at a Western audience - all but two of the 13 tracks are in English - and from what I could tell of its quality, it stands a good chance of winning back a little of the international prestige Estonia lost when it committed the cardinal sin of exporting Vanilla Ninja to Germany.
Okay, it's confession time. I'm not a jazz connoisseur, and I won't pretend to be. Still, when listening to this album, I was impressed by the intricacies of Hanson's arrangements, and enjoyed her soulful voice, though I have to mention problems I had with the album's tempo and lyrics.
The first song is the album's title track. It sets the pace for the rest of the work, which is decidedly hypnotic, slow, and fairly melancholic. Imagine staring out the window on a rainy day, drinking tea and thinking about the ex-lover who moved away last year. That pretty much sums up most of the album's atmosphere.
Hanson's vocal and a guitar are the only sounds for most of this tune, which is fine, until you listen to the lyrics, which are a bit simplistic and meaningless. "What color is love? Is it black or is it white? Is it here or is it there?" A bit too Dr. Seuss for my liking.
The second track, "Afro White" is a big, rhythmic, up-tempo number, which brings the mood up several notches, as does the ninth track, "Tender Intro."
Most of the other songs, by contrast, tend toward the sleep-inducing. "Andre's Dreamin'" and "Sweet Dreamin'" eventually lead to the finale, "Pat's Lullaby," -as if you need a lullaby at this point. It's a shame though, since "Pat's Lullably" is where Hanson's vocals really shine.
All in all, it's an excellent album, albeit not one to get anyone up and going. It seems better to have it playing in the background to a quiet, candle-lit dinner and a cognac.
So what color is love? Judging by the mood of this album, I'd have to say bluish-grey. But it's probably better to have a listen, take a nap, and dream up the answer for yourself.