Jokes about Canada are as old as ”American Woman” by the Guess Who, Winnipeg’s best-known export, and Nelly Furtado nearly sets herself up to be the latest in a long line of Great White North punchlines. This 21-year-old sings in a voice that occasionally slips into a sing-song mannerism, flaunts a borderline-dippy, free-spirit-at-a-rave image, and, in her official record-company biography, lists Paula Abdul — a singer best remembered for her dancing abilities — as one of her earliest influences. If that weren’t enough, Furtado’s first album is called Whoa, Nelly!, a title better suited to a wacky sitcom than a supposedly serious album.
Eyebrows are further raised when one actually begins playing the disc. In ”S— on the Radio (Remember the Days),” she shoots back at someone, either a friend or an ex-lover, who feels that her signing with a big-time label (DreamWorks, in this case) indicates sellout: ”You liked me till you heard my s— on the radio/But now I’m just too mainstream for you, oh no.” Given that Whoa, Nelly! is Furtado’s debut, it would seem a tad premature for her to assume she’ll be commandeering the airwaves. But then the music kicks in, and any skepticism melts like a bad witch. With its beauteous chorus and turntable scratching, ”S— on the Radio” carries you away on a sonic jet stream. True to another part of her bio, it confirms her claim that she’s been equally influenced by TLC and Beck. The song has that something special rarely heard on the radio these days — the Sway, with a capital S, unlike so many of the robo-rhythms that have overtaken much of the Top 40.
That charm extends to most of Whoa, Nelly!, one of the year’s most consistently pleasurable debuts. Reflecting Furtado’s grab bag of influences — she may be Canadian, but it’s by way of Portugal — the music deftly blends organic instruments with samples and electronic programming. The combination makes for a Day-Glo playground in which R&B, world music, psychedelia, and singer-songwriter craft meet and romp for an hour. The single ”I’m Like a Bird” takes the old ”it’s not you, it’s me” stance on breaking up a relationship, but the song — like all the others, written by Furtado — leaps from a seesawing orchestral intro into a shimmery flow. ”Turn Off the Light,” in which she informs us she isn’t as hard as she seems, opens with a downright surreal juxtaposition of sounds — Gregorian chant plus scratching plus acoustic-guitar strumming — before turning into a frisky frolic.
Not everything on Whoa, Nelly! is as enchanting as those three songs, but the album never ceases to tug at your ear; it has a sassy, jittery, let’s-try-that energy. Furtado and her producers, Gerald Eaton and Brian West (who work under the name Track and Field), sprinkle the numbers with dub basses, lulling jazz trumpets, mambo pianos, and death-metal guitars, often in the same song. In ”Legend,” Furtado finds a new beau (maybe she dumped the one who judged her so harshly in ”S— on the Radio”) and celebrates with a sort of bossa nova trip-hop.
Furtado’s voice has the same playful, slip-sliding way as the music. She revels in alliteration, blows kisses on one track, and sings in baby-doll Portuguese on ”I Will Make U Cry.” She even manages to half-talk her way through ”Trynna Finda Way,” and become possibly the first person since Elvis to pull it off. In her writing, Furtado has a tendency to overuse the words ”bird” and ”sky,” and she gets a bit loopy here and there, but as fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell demonstrated over 30 years ago, debut albums are the stuff of such growing pains. If we’re lucky, Whoa, Nelly! will blow away much of that s— on the radio. A