Raya Yarbrough is like the musical equivalent of an undertow, sometimes gentle as a nudge, other times powerful enough to drag your imagination miles off course. For years she has impressed her fellow Angelenos both with her songwriting skills and her multi-hued vocal prowess. Crisscrossing the blurry borders dividing pop, jazz and soul, she seems equal parts cool Patricia Barber gravitas, scorching Aretha Franklin authority and naked Janis Ian integrity.
The dozen tracks that fill her eponymous debut are laden with strings (her own guitar, one cello, a viola and two violins), brass (four saxophones, two trumpets, one flugelhorn) and even a flute; yet never seem weighty or excessive (thanks largely to the craftsmanship of her producer, former Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek). She can make the familiar startlingly fresh and different (imagine Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” wrapped in funeral rags, a frosty “Early Autumn” that melts into pools of sensual longing and a vocalese treatment of “Mood Indigo” that is wise beyond Yarbrough’s 20-something years). Conversely, she packs tunes that are fresh and different with familiar punch, evocatively holding the mirror up to such universal themes as coping with emotional detritus (“Listen Emily”), trying to rationalize an imbalanced romance (“Lord Knows I Would”), wrestling with a friendship’s inevitable erosion (“Vice and Vanity”) and turning a blind eye to a destructive relationship (“You’re So Bad for Me”).