GOOD NEWS is the release of a new album by Washington's a cappella wonders, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Great news is the release of two new albums by the group that celebrates its 12th anniversary Friday at the Warner Theatre.
"Feel Something Drawing Me On" is Sweet Honey's first collection of sacred songs, while "The Other Side" offers a varied program of songs of conscience reflecting not only the black American traditions and experiences that inspired and still inform the group, but also the global communality that thrives on connections, not distinctions.
There are only five singers (and one signer for the deaf) in Sweet Honey, but there are many more voices, constantly surprising in their rich textures and rhythmic and melodic adventurousness, their intertwining of distinctive individuality and common purpose. Harmony, counterpoint and embellishment are cold, dull words to describe the warmth and brilliance of interaction between group founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, Evelyn Maria Harris, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Yasmeen Bheti Williams- Johnson and Aisha Khalil. Each singer is a powerful soloist, but what's important are the possibilities of community inside each song, and the healing powers such union provides.
"Feel Something Drawing Me On" may be the first tightly focused Sweet Honey project, but evidence of the group's eclectic interests and dogged research can be found in a program that's heavy with classic black Baptist standards sung in supple variations on quartet tradition. There's Rev. Charles Albert Tindley's "We'll Understand It Better Bye and Bye," Rev. William Herbert Brewster's "Leaning and Depending on the Lord" and the title song, Lucie Campbell's "In the Upper Room" and Roberta Martin's "Try Jesus". But the album also includes a reggae spiritual, a Woody Guthrie protest song and more.
The readings of the church standards are excellent, but the most memorable moments come in Sweet Honey's introduction of two stunning West African songs. "When I Die Tomorrow," uncovered at a Baptist church in Liberia and re-arranged by Williams-Johnson, is a compulsive swirl of polyrhythms and congregational communion. "Meyango," a funeral song paced by Khalil's raw exuberance, is powerful in its mystery.
There are songs by Rev. Brewster and Woody Guthrie and a wordless West African rhythm workout on "The Other Side," as well as a hymn-like reading of the preamble to the constitution of the United Mine Workers, but the album's finest moments originate with various group members. Harris' "Gift of Love" is a playful, jazzy meditation on matters of the heart, while Reagon's "Mae Frances" is a moving celebration of the spiritual strength of black women.
Best of all, though, is "No Images," with a haunting Barnwell melody set to Waring Cuney's brief, shattering poem:
She does not know her beauty
She thinks her brown body has no glory
But if she could dance naked 'neath palm trees
And see her reflection in the river
Then she would know
But there are no trees in the street where she lives
And dish water gives back no images.
In Sweet Honey's wash of voices, some echoing, some anticipating, there is sorrow and there is joy to be felt. There is immense pleasure and important information to be gained from both these albums, and you'll come away thinking there is nothing the human voice cannot do.
SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK -- "Feel Something Drawing Me On" (Flying Fish FF375) and "The Other Side" (Flying Fish FF366); appearing Friday at 8 at the Warner Theatre.