ADIA VICTORIA, “A Southern Gothic”
Exploring her conflicted Southern heritage with co-writer/producer Mason Hickman and executive producer T Bone Burnett, the idiosyncratic artist delivers her most accessible album without sacrificing her singular voice. She sets the bar high with a trio of smartly arranged tracks: “Magnolia Blues,” “Mean-Hearted Woman” (“I’ve got it in me to burst into flames/ Let the whole world burn, let the ashes rain”) and “You Was Born to Die,” a gospel- and blues-infused jam with Kyshona Armstrong, Margo Price and Jason Isbell that speaks directly to Victoria’s titular theme while providing some of the album’s most electric moments. Other highlights: the ghostly, banjo-flecked “My Oh My,” guitar-scorched rocker “Troubled Mind.”
PEARL & THE OYSTERS, “Flowerland”
Subtly ratcheting tensions between shadow and sun, Joachim Polack and Juliette Davis brighten their dreamy pop with calypso rhythms, disco beats and ’70s-style production flourishes. It’s almost too breezy, but the LA-based duo’s rotations between carnival-esque vibes, bossa nova chill and retro pop hooks sustain momentum. Standout tracks such as “Treasure Island,” “Radiant Radish” and the contemplative “Evening Sun” catch the feeling of good times slipping past while hinting at climate-triggered transformations (“I’m feeling numb, maybe I should lie down/ Act like a tourist in my own hometown/ Never been blinded by the evening sun/ All this heat and yet summer hasn’t even begun”).
SHAKESPEARE & THE BLUES, “e.g., rhapsodic”
(Nouveau Electric): 2½
Experimental fusions of instrumental jazz, hip-hop, stoner grooves and comedic and psychedelic samples. Arising from improvisations between drummer Cam Smith, harpist Cassie Watson Francillon and Lost Bayou Ramblers/Soul Creole bassist Bryan Webre, several of the 11 compositions are fragmentary or poetic, such as trippy “the rhythm is rhapsodic” interlude “Intro”; others allude to the more fully formed “The Mechanics of Distance,” “Cellophane Trees” and time-bending closer “Star Rubies.” Listeners may want more of the cinematic drama and beats of “Fad Pt 1” and “Fad Pt 2,” though some may find respite in the collective sense of floating hallucination.
ANA EGGE, “Between Us” (StorySound): 3
The insightful singer-songwriter’s 12th album is the fruit of songwriting collaborations with Irish artist Mick Flannery as well as producer/keyboardist Lorenzo Wolff, whose introduction of horns and synthesizers into arrangements refreshes her folk-rooted sonic palette. Backed by members of Sinkane and Butcher Brown, among others, her gentle melodies land with more dynamic force, as do velvet-gloved punches delivered by her lyrics (“Mirrors only lie death by drowning there/ Look me in the eye so we can get somewhere”). Relational conflicts remain her focus, and the strongest tracks — hooky opener “Wait a Minute,” “Don’t Come Around”, “Lie Lie Lie” — speak simultaneously to personal dramas and broader social strife.
JAZZMEIA HORN AND HER NOBLE FORCE, “Dear Love” (Empress Legacy): 4
The Grammy-nominated vocalist’s self-composed, -arranged and -produced third album finds her exploring big band jazz — a suitably capacious format for her nimble range (including Ella-worthy high notes and scatting) and sense of historical and musical time. Jazz chestnuts “He’s My Guy” and “Lover Come Back to Me” are joyously revived by Horn’s regal vocal command and 15-piece band (props to longtime pianist Keith Brown and saxophonists Keith Loftis and Bruce Williams). But the real meat of the album’s in Horn’s poetry-laced contemplations of community and self-determination: the moving “Where We Are,” “Money Can’t Buy Me, Love” (a melodious twist on the Beatles), “Where Is Freedom!?” and “Strive (To Be),” an epic summation of her timely themes.
STACI GRIESBACH, “My George Jones Songbook”
(indie release): 3
Tackling the songbook of a country singer acknowledged to be on par with Frank Sinatra is no small undertaking; recasting that material in lush jazz orchestrations is also daunting, as it illuminates its melodic architecture from fresh angles. LA-based jazz stylist Griesbach approaches it with interpretive skill, her lighter tones cushioned by pianist Jeremy Siskind’s sparkling arrangements; she does not try to emulate Jones’ tone or baritone- and tenor-encompassing range. A swinging “The Race Is On” is animated by organ solos and shifting time signatures, though other jaunty honky-tonkers (“Why Baby Why”) adapt less comfortably to jazz settings. But Griesbach’s readings of beloved Jones-defined ballads (“The Grand Tour,” “Take Me,” “You’re Still on My Mind”) are movingly delivered.
MALCOLM HOLCOMBE, “Tricks of the Trade”
(Gypsy Eyes): 4
The irascible veteran songwriter’s well served throughout his latest foray, co-produced by longtime multi-instrumentalist Jared Tyler and bassist Dave Roe. Drummers Jerry Roe and Miles McPherson help toughen the rhythmic punch of timely tracks such as the border-shadowed “Your Kin,” the swampy “Money Train,” “Crazy Man Blues” (“Ain’t it nice being white/ In a president suit/ You never think twice/ With the crazy man blues”) and celebratory “Higher Ground,” with harmonies from Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris. Onstage, Holcombe enters a shamanistic ZIP code all his own while fingerpicking guitar and spinning myth-tinged tales in otherworldly tones, until COVID-19 numbers recede enough for him to cast spells on live audiences again, no time like the present to imbibe his gritty strain of Americana.
LITTLE SIMZ, “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”
(Age 101/AWAL): 4
Soul harmonies and arrangements ease the sting and density of the London rapper’s wordflow throughout her exemplary fourth album, made in LA with Michael Kiwanuka producer InFlo. Across 19 tracks, she looks hard at the distance between Simbiatu Ajikawo’s vulnerable private and daring public personas while representing for anyone experiencing comparable losses, challenges and anxieties. Inhabiting other characters yields compelling storytelling (the compassionate “Little Q Part 2”), and “The Crown” actress Emma Corrin’s spoken interludes are weirdly inspired. But the most potent moments are personal: the string-driven “Speed,” deadbeat dad-inspired “I Love You, I Hate You,” masterful “Introvert” (“Simz the artist or Simbi the person?/ To you I’m smiling, but really, I’m hurting/ … One day, I’m wordless, next day, I’m a wordsmith/ Close to success, but to happiness, I’m the furthest”).