Sunday, September 24, 2017

Record Roundup: Siren Songs




Perhaps some of the impetus behind NPR's Turning The Tables or this recent feature in the New York Times is because this has been a banner year for albums either made by or heavily featuring women. I've already mentioned Nordic Affect, The Courtneys, Goldfrapp, Noveller, Novella, Elsa Hewitt, and Nadia Reid in my Best Of 2017 (So Far) - that's almost half the list! Crumb, led by Lila Remini, recently released Locket, an EP of their distinctive, accomplished songs, EMA's Exile On The Outer Ring is a powerful return to form, and Not Dark Yet by Shelby Lynne and Alison Moorer features the sisters singing a powerful collection of covers and one new song they wrote together. I've also been enjoying records by This Is The Kit, Caroline Says, Julie Byrne, Jen Cloher, Sudan Archives, Wild Ponies, Jane Weaver, Diet Cig, Juana Molina, Hollie Cook, and others. Whew.

Here are four more albums made by women in 2017 that I think are worthy of special attention.

Charlotte Dos Santos - Cleo A high point of Sofie's SOS Tape was Dos Santos's Watching You, a seductive and spare groove that seems to redefine the term "sweet nothings." This is especially true when Dos Santos harmonizes with herself, a truly heavenly sound. Now we have a debut album which, while it doesn't always reach those sublime heights, provides a further roadmap to the talents of this unique singer, songwriter and producer.

Her instrument is a high soprano which she employs with remarkable flexibility and control. She could easily pursue straight jazz but seems to naturally gravitate toward an elegant R&B modernism, with a touch of hip hop soul. Even knowing that going in, the opening track, a sweet take on the 700 year old song Sumer Is A Cumen In, was a delightful surprise, signaling an artist unbound by convention. The whole album is a languid experience, perfect for hot nights and cold cocktails. It's a digital vacation, drifting by with a delicious lack of friction. That said, my ears do perk up more during Red Clay, which has the feel of a new standard, and the closing track, It's Over Bobby, an almost stately cha cha. I could feel sorry for Bobby - but what a way to go.

Nicole Atkins - Goodnight Rhonda Lee Atkins's last album, Slow Phaser (my #10 album of 2014), was a masterpiece of Bowie-esque pop, with clever lyrics and more hooks than a strip of Velcro. Her latest draws more on classic sounds of the 50s, 60s and 70s - think Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Dusty Springfield, Elvis, maybe even a little Linda Ronstadt - without being slavish. It's a magnificent showcase for her voice, which can be Broadway big, soul music raw, country smoke, or pure pop. There's even a little disco-era glamour on Sleepwalking. Behind the chameleon is a warm but slightly hard-bitten character who has seen it and done it all and is now here to spread the wisdom.

Goodnight Rhonda Lee wouldn't be so entirely winning if the songs weren't so damned solid. On this front she's enlisted some expert assistance, co-writing every song with the right kind of pros, like Chris "Wicked Game" Isaak, Louise "songwriting royalty " Goffin, and Jim "Lydia Lunch to Nick Cave" Sclavunos, and others, all of whom know their way around classicism. Everything is top notch, from the the recording and production by Niles City Sound (founded by former members of White Denim, who also part of the crack session squad), all the way down to the sequencing of the album. I still get chills when opening track A Little Crazy U-turns into Darkness Falls So Quiet, with its Memphis strings and NYC attitude. Another thing Atkins has going for her is restraint. Even when she's belting it out, she's always in control, holding back just a little. You don't have to be shy, though - play it loud and often. 

Note: Nicole Atkins is on the road, including a show at Music Hall of Williamsburg on November 7th - perhaps I will see you there.

Jenny O - Peace & Information Like Nicole Atkins, Jenny crowdfunded this album and (full disclosure) I contributed to both. While it's always a bit of a risk buying something unheard, her debut, as well as the solo performance that introduced her to me, was so impressive that I had no worries about a sophomore slump. And when I saw she was working with Father John Misty-whisperer Jonathan Wilson as producer again, I was even more comfortable with my little investment in her talent.

Unlike the Atkins album, however, Peace & Information is more of an incremental move on Jenny's part, rather than entree into a new sound world. That means we get more of the same wonderful Beatle-esque rock with relatable lyrics and hooky instrumental flourishes that we got on 2012's Automechanic. The songs are just as good, even slightly more original and she's singing better than ever, so if you want to call it a formula, be my guest. She does ramp up the drama a bit, especially on grungy opener Case Study and Seashells, with its spine-tingling strings, and ventures into new territory on If You're Lonely, with its beguiling nod to Bossa Nova giving a breezy twist to the sadness in the lyrics. But there are few singer-songwriters currently at her level so if she wants to stay in her area of strength, I'm good with that.

One of the things that makes her unique (besides her individualistic voice) is the sense she gives of being a person in the world, which can give some of the songs the immediacy of a status update. People opens with this couplet: "It was a bad day on the street, oh/They had a barricade for the angry" - we all know what that's about - and High Regard harkens back to many of the recommendations for self-care that fill my newsfeed:

"In The line of sympathy reserved for anyone
With the eyes I lay upon a stranger
With the same acceptance
And the high regard
With the curiosity
And the light that another brings
With the light that the other brings
As I do for them
I will do for me."

That sense of resilience and the possibility for not only survival but growth even in times that strain your heart and your political sensibilities is a subtext that adds steel to the spine of Peace & Information. Sing along and draw on that strength in your own life.

Note: Jenny O. is also on tour and I hope to catch her at the Mercury Lounge on November 18th.

Chloe X Halle - The Two Of Us We live in an odd time, where kids playing covers (or even lip-synching!) in their bedrooms can garner more YouTube hits than the three artists above - combined. But that's also how these singing sisters were discovered, by Beyoncé no less, launching a career that started with an excellent debut EP, Sugar Symphony, in 2016. Now comes The Two Of Us, which they insist is neither an album nor a mixtape (what would you call 16 songs in 25 minutes?), but which is an excellent showcase of their versatile talents nonetheless.

The opening track, Used To Love, dazzles with an intricate vocal arrangement accompanied only by handclaps, a jazzy take on doo wop informed by modern R&B and hip hop. Poppy Flower is a narcotized seduction ("I can be your poppy flower/make you fall in a coma after hours") with a sly Carlton Barrett drum fill that shades it into reggae territory. There's a very satisfying bluesy edge to a couple of tracks, so often lacking in R&B - check out Chase for an example.

Reading around the web, I get the idea that Beyoncé fans are waiting for something bigger from these teenagers. I hope they maintain their delicate but intense minimalism, poetic lyrics, and vocal restraint, without falling into radio-ready convention. Whatever happens, The Two Of Us will always be one the delights of the year.
How many of the records mentioned here are on your radar? Are you as overwhelmed with great new music as I am?

Songs from all of the albums mentioned above - and more - are included in this Spotify playlist. I'll keep adding to it, too!




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