REVIEW: Chocolate Genius Inc. — "Swansongs" (One Little Indian)

M ark Anthony Thompson shows the power of quiet stillness.

@chocgeninc

I finally figured out what my problem is: I hear and see an amazing songwriter and performer like Marc Anthony Thompson, and it’s hard for me to take dreck like Raheem DeVaughn’s “Single” or Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” Thompson’s talent and abilities are on full display on his latest album as Chocolate Genius, Inc., Swansongs.

Thompson released a couple of albums in the late ’80s under his own name before releasing Black Music in 1998 under the Chocolate Genius moniker. Subsequent releases, Godmusic and Black Yankee Rock, also highlighted the fact that he’s a musician’s musician. His collaborators include folks like Sade’s Stuart Matthewman, as well as prominent New York musicians such as Marc Ribot, Oren Bloedow and Meshell Ndegeocello, among others.

He won an Obie Award for sound design in 1997 for his work on Roger Guenveur Smith’s A Huey P. Newton Story, and has written music for films like American Splendor, Urbania and Twin Falls, Idaho. In 2006 he toured with Bruce Springsteen.

Swansongs is aptly titled, since it will be his last as Chocolate Genius. The concept, he’s noted during interviews, was originally conceived of as one with a short shelf life. Now he feels like it’s time to retire this alter ego.

But what an album to go out on!

Thompson’s Bobby Womack-esque voice carries on it notes and songs of regret, letting go and making peace. He’s a master of small moments and confessionals, and distilling the key inflection points of a relationship into compelling songs. He turns great phrases, like this couplet from “Enough for You”: “Now we’re on dry land and you miss the seaside/Say you want another point of view/But when we make love you wake up so hungry/Baby, I wish I had enough for you.”

Swansongs is a quiet album. Yes, there are head-nod-inducing tracks such as the aforementioned “Enough for You,” the drunk-stupor-approximating “Lump” or the gospel-inflected “When I Lay You Down.” But more often than not, the album tends toward quiet intensity and a spaciousness that puts the song lyrics on equal footing with the music. Under the headphones, you can hear that he plays with background soundscapes. It creates an intimacy that, I’m guessing, he wanted to carry over from his live shows. Check out the vaguely typewriter-like sounds in the background of moving, elegiac “Like a Nurse.”

“Sit and Spin” was recorded on the last day of his father’s life, and it’s all the more poignant coming after “Mr. Wonderful,” a collection of voice mails that his dad left for him over the years. His ability to create moments such as these makes you want to check on your kids or call your parents.

Chocolate Genius Inc.’s Swansongs shows us that, at its best, there is power in stillness. What we feel are songs that have an internal power driven by song craft and quiet confidence. All of which stands in stark contrast to the frenetic, slickly produced, yet empty work that’s only designed to gin up controversy and generate Youtube views.

But there’s hope. In fact, there always has been. To a list of contemporary songwriting talents that would include Stew (of Passing Strange), Little Jackie’s Imani Coppola, genre-busting rocker Tamar-kali and stalwarts the Family Stand, among others, Marc Anthony Thompson — in whatever guise he chooses — is a welcome addition.

This review was originally published on TheRoot.com on December 2, 2010.

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