By any measures of competent record-making and simple good taste, Nelly Furtado’s music should clear the room. On ”Folklore,” as on her 2000 debut, ”Whoa Nelly!,” she and her producers don’t hesitate to utilize whatever instruments or musicians happen to be lying around. On ”Folklore”’s typically twitchy opening cut, ”One-Trick Pony,” a banjo, the Kronos Quartet, and a clipped hip-hop beat intermingle. Elsewhere on the album, vibes, cathedral organ, bossa nova guitar, and even more banjo collide with DJ scratches and Portuguese raps. Add in Furtado’s voice, which swerves from an appealing, feathery girlishness to a harsh nasality, and ”Folklore” should have been a mess.
But it isn’t, and for that we can thank the enthusiasm and creativity that Furtado and her primary collaborator, the production team Track & Field, bring to it. ”Folklore” is about the joy of making something new out of random elements, and few other albums this year have captured that pleasure as well as this one does. Incorporating snap-crackle rhythms and an imaginative juxtaposition of instruments, tracks like ”The Grass Is Green” and ”Picture Perfect” sparkle. Built on a foundation of dark, hard beats, ”Explode” — a solemn account of troubled teen girls that reads like Furtado’s blatant attempt to be taken seriously — truly does explode into a hopeful, euphoric chorus. ”Try” is one of several ballads that manage to be refined without being precious.
It helps, though, to tune out many of Furtado’s words. ”Whoa”’s left-field success appears to have played with her head, making her not a little self-righteous and defensive. The droning single ”Powerless (Say What You Want)” includes a denunciation of the media for misrepresenting her background (”paint my face in your magazines…shove away my ethnicity”). She’s also fond of inane lines like ”I rock these bare feet like no one else can.” But even as Furtado strains to find the appropriate words with which to express herself, her exultant music goes on its merry, multicultural way.