MARA CONNOR, Decades (Side Hustle): 3
Over the past 15 months, many listeners have found new meaning in old music that stirs or soothes, and Connor accomplishes something similar with this EP of astutely selected covers — one per decade, from the 1950s through the ’90s. The best known, Neil Young’s 1972 classic “Old Man,” complements Connor’s Joni-influenced upper register and comes across in full-band performance as timely commentary, while ebullient rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” sheds its 1955 doo-wop trappings for a torchy, atmospheric redo. The LA-raised artist most fully inhabits Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game,” brightening the 1965 original’s stately pace with chiming guitar chords and organ, and — joined by Goon guitarist Kenny Becker — Elliott Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing” (1997), which similarly transforms sorrow into hope.
BOUBACAR “BADIAN” DIABATÉ, Mande Guitar: African Guitar Series, Volume 1 (Lion Songs): 4
Esteemed music journalist and podcaster Banning Eyre launched his label with this new release, and small wonder. The Malian artist he describes in liner notes as “one of Africa’s great unsung guitarists” justifies that accolade with this stunning acoustic set. Playing six- and 12-string guitars, Diabaté echoes his grandfathers’ ngoni performance style (“Bagounou”), celebrates harvest time (the cheerful “Sene”), brings Eyre in for a duet vibrant with feeling for Diabaté’s grandmother (“Bayini”) and teams with guitarist brother Manfa for entrancing traditionals “Douga” and “Fadento” (the latter animated by Baye Kouyaté’s percussion). The melodic beauty and rippling complexity of Diabaté’s guitar runs should satisfy fretheads and folk aficionados alike.
SHANNON MCNALLY, The Waylon Sessions
Paying tribute to influential heroes while interpreting their songs through your own creative filter requires as much self-awareness as insight into another’s music. It’s a tricky process McNally finesses with earthy grace throughout this self-described “affectionate feminine reinterpretation” of “outlaw standards” associated with Waylon Jennings. Steve Young’s “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” a Waylon anthem, has long been a fan favorite at her live shows. Here she explores 13 other Waylon tracks, her smoky alto backed by A-grade players, such as guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bassist Chris Scruggs (nailing the upfront bass lines that helped define Jennings’ sound). Highlights: a saucy romp through “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” with Rodney Crowell, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
JON ALLEN, …Meanwhile (OK! Good/Monologue): 3½
Kicking off his fifth album with the cathartic heartbreak anthem “Blame It All on Me” and hooky, upbeat rocker “Can’t Hold Back the Sun,” the British singer-songwriter plunges forward between those poles of light and dark for the remainder of this engagingly composed set. His expressive, lightly grained baritone and instrumentation (guitar, bass, Hammond organ, drums) recall classic pop without being derivative, baring wounds so they may heal. RIYL Marc Cohn, Damian Rice, Foy Vance. Highlights: “Mercy,” “Wrong,” “Looking for the Light,” “Cruel World” (“Got no faith in my feelings, they’ve betrayed me before/ My heart is full of stories I don’t believe anymore”).