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Songs We Love: Lizz Wright, 'River Man'

Courtesy of the artist

Nick Drake's music is catnip to a certain kind of artist. Melodically pristine and rhythmically complex in quiet ways, the small songbook of the late English singer-songwriter offers interpreters a chance to be enchanting without stretching much. Yet to make Drake's songs new is a challenge. His vocal style of lingering around a beat, while playing guitar parts that were never flashy but always dazzlingly complex, is possible to imitate but difficult to make truly personal.

Lizz Wright is one of the rare singers who shares Drake's patience and self-possession when inhabiting a song's environment. Her version of "River Man," originally on Drake's 1969 debut album, Five Leaves Left, originates within a study of currents: Wright and producer Larry Klein build an arrangement in lines of guitar, bass and lapping drumbeats that pull the ear downward, beneath the surface and ever forward. Wright's singing is smooth, without heavy consonants or vibrato, but unlike the elusive Drake, she leans in, finding sensuality in the drag of the spare melody. The German trumpeter Till Bronner — who released his own, more whimsical version of "River Man" on the Klein-produced Oceana album in 2006 — adds a solo that shifts the song's flow like a flurry of rocks in a stream.

"River Man" is a highlight of Freedom & Surrender, Wright's first album for Concord Records, to be released Sept. 4. Other highlights on that very romantic, spiritually inquisitive disc include a duet with the singer's friend Gregory Porter and several originals penned with the likes of J.D. Souther, Toshi Reagon and Klein himself. At 35, Wright has established a style that's temperate and spacious, giving her room to try new things while remaining true to a subtle muse. The way she takes up the call of "River Man" is a deep sign of her wisdom and commitment.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.