Lizz Wright's latest album, The Orchard, opens with a mood piece: barely audible organ, strummed acoustic guitar and minimal drums supporting Wright's smoky alto as she sings, "Coming home to your shelter / Coming home where I stand." The song, "Coming Home," echoes the acoustic-gothic tone of Nick Cave's gentler turns, and captures the feeling of being away from home too long, and returning to once-familiar things only to find them wreathed in ghosts.
The Orchard's seeds were a series of photographs Wright took in her hometown of rural Hahira, Ga., where she grew up as a preacher's daughter, singing gospel music and playing piano. Studying voice in college, she eventually joined a jazz group called In the Spirit, but it was her stint in a touring Billie Holliday tribute that brought her to a larger audience -- and Verve Records. Wright debuted on the Verve label in 2003, with Salt, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard contemporary-jazz charts.
But little of The Orchard seems concerned with all that jazz. Rather, it's an earthy, folky outing: Most of the songs were co-written by Wright with singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and rendered in stark acoustic atmospheres, with a little percussive Latin flavor now and then ("My Heart" and "This Is").
Wright's skills as an interpreter show up on the third track, Ike Turner's "I Idolize You." It's the first real blues stomp heard on the record -- an inevitability her voice telegraphs from the start -- sung almost as a duet with Oren Bloedow's vocal-like, attitude-drenched slide guitar. Another strong cover is "Hey Mann," by Reagon's mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Wright sings it a cappella at first; then electric piano, bass and high hat swell into a country-soul feel, with pedal steel touches courtesy of Dylan sideman Larry Campbell. (Speaking of sidemen, Calexico's John Convertino covers the understated drums on most tracks; his bandmate Joey Burns contributes some acoustic guitars, bass and cello.)
Not all the songs are as strong as the album's first half. "Speak Your Heart" is pretty much an adult-contemporary ballad, complete with icky lines like "I want to be real to you / no more disguises / let me in or let me go," and "Song for Mia" has a kind of strident campfire-anthem feel. The Orchard is pretty evenly divided between the moody, smoldering grooves that open it, and the second, Lilith Fair half. And then there's the anomalous closer, a cover of Zeppelin's "Thank You" which turns it into an almost Beta Band-style groove.
But whatever she's singing, Wright's voice is the star of the show. She doesn't rely on the screamy, overdriven pyrotechnics and melismatic warblings that prop up many vocalists, instead opting for a cool restraint that's ultimately more powerful and expressive.
Lizz Wright with Raul Midon. 6:30 p.m. Sun., June 8. Three Rivers Arts Festival Main Stage, Stanwix Street at Liberty Avenue, Downtown. Free. All ages. 412-281-8723 or www.artsfestival.net