By Bliss Bowen
OKUTE, Okuté (Chulo): 4
Eschewing florid contemporary stylings, this Havana-based rumba ensemble focuses on soulful elementals: Pedro “Tata” Francisco Almeida Barriel’s warm, earthy vocals, trésero Coto and the Vizcaino family’s polyrhythmic percussion. Working with Orquesta Akokán’s Jacob Plasse, they tap into rumba’s and son’s African roots as well as Cuban religious music, evoking midcentury Cuban rumba with this slow-burning, heartfelt celebration. Highlights: the stirring call-and-response of “Chichiribako,” “Quiere La Rumba,” “Rumbarimbula,” “Devuelva Me La Voz.”
JAPANESE BREAKFAST, Jubilee (Dead Oceans): 4
In the aftermath of her spacey, emotionally wounded 2017 album “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” and recent “Crying in H Mart” memoir about her mother’s death, Michelle Zauner embraces joy over darkness with this thoughtfully textured pop set. The reverbed ambiance of “Another Planet” has been replaced by bright vocals backed by banks of synthesizers and programmed drums. The 1980s-style beats suit “Be Sweet” (“I want to believe in you, I want to believe in something”) and the wary “Slide Tackle;” bleak humor coexists with sweetness and sorrow in the strongest tracks (“In Hell,” “Savage Good Boy,” “Tactics”), as in life.
RACHEL BAIMAN, Cycles (Signature Sounds): 3½
A smartly written, keenly felt set that should attract fans of Molly Tuttle and Gillian Welch. Playing guitar, banjo and fiddle, Baiman and co-producer Olivia Hally (bass, piano) focus on Baiman’s straightforward assessments of personal and communal rites of passage, relationships and self-discovery. The title track, the punchy “Hope It Hurts” and “Joke’s on Me” showcase her knack for pop hooks, while a cover of Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott’s “Rustbelt Fields” complements Baiman’s topical songwriting. Inspired by Baiman’s grandmother, “No Good Time for Dying” unsentimentally speaks truth: “People that you love, well, they always disappoint you/ What you need is not to need at all/ There’s no way of asking them to turn and look away/ No way to hide their pity when they see you fall.”
SHUNGUDZO, “I’m not a mother but I have children” (Svikiro/Young Forever/BMG): 4
Hooks for days and substantive lyrics make this a terrific companion album for this summer. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, based in LA, Shungudzo Kuyimba began composing songs in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, speaking from her perspective on the edge of differing cultures. Racism and the frustrating dynamics of change burn at the heart of this gritty 16-track set: “People know my color before they know my name/ I try to be agreeable, I try to be a saint/ But sometimes an upright middle finger leads the way.” It’s a rejuvenating listen, alternating hard beats and righteous, infectious anthems (“There’s only so much a soul can take,” “It’s a good day [to fight the system]”) with vulnerable balladry (the title track, “To be me,” “How many more lives?”). Other highlights: guitar-slashing rocker “White parents,” the transcendent “The world can’t change for you, but you can change the world,” with a gorgeous choir affirming a mother’s hope. Turn it up.
AMYTHYST KIAH, Wary + Strange (Rounder): 3½
Best known as one-quarter of Grammy-nominated collective Our Native Daughters (alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell), Kiah melds rock with acoustic roots instrumentation on this vibrant solo set dealing with identity, addiction, belief and mortality. Recorded in LA with producer Tony Berg and nimble players (guitarist Blake Mills, keyboardist Ethan Gruska, bassist Wendy Melvoin), its 11 truth-telling tracks are musically gratifying and emotionally cathartic. Highlights include the proud rocker “Black Myself,” “Tender Organs” and the poignant “Wild Turkey,” about her mother’s death (“When I was seventeen, I pretended not to care/Stayed numb for years to escape despair”).
WE ARE THE WEST, Only One Us
(Timeless Elegance): 3
Guitarist Brett Hool and bassist John Kibler were in the middle of recording their second full-length album when the pandemic shutdown (and surgery for Hool’s broken leg) shoved the project into limbo. Having developed their cinematic, jam-friendly sound over eight years through their underground concert series in a Santa Monica garage, the final versions of these new songs take a simpler turn as gracefully fingerpicked acoustic guitars are subtly accompanied by organ, horn and percussion. Released in time for summer solstice, it’s a gently restorative set, imbued with a sense of renewal and gratitude for what’s most essential in life. Highlights: “For Giving,” “Unwind Your Mind,” “For All Mankind,” “When the Lights Have All Been Shined.”
ANGELIQUE KIDJO, Mother Nature (Universal): 3
The irrepressible, widely influential West African diva and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador rounds up a starry crew of veteran artists and up-and-comers to join her calls for love, “Dignity” and responsible stewardship of Planet Earth, including Yemi Alade, Salif Keita, Sampa the Great, Lionel Loueke, Shungudzo and Zeynab. Despite the heavy message, her tone is joyful, and longtime fans will likely savor the four-time Grammy winner’s empowering spirit during standout tracks such as “Do Yourself” with Burna Boy, “Flying High” (“We have to live together/ …Life is so beautiful”), “Choose Love” (“Brothers, why we fighting each other/ My sisters, why we let the men take our power …/ Let’s be stronger than our fathers/ Free ourselves and please our mothers”).
MNDSGN, Rare Pleasure (Stones Throw): 3
Ringgo Ancheta’s shows at the Lodge Room this weekend have already sold out, so fans will have to sate themselves with the trippy, samba-infused R&B comforts of the composer/arranger’s third album for Stones Throw. Collaborating again with bassist/guitarist Swarvy, keyboardist Kiefer Shackelford, drummer Will Logan, percussionist Carlos Niño and string player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Ancheta’s feel-good project’s graced with pillowy background vocals (Fousheé and Anna Wise) and moments of reassuring uplift. Highlights: “Hope You’re Doin’ Better” (“You know you’ve got a friend whenever you need one/ Pick up your phone”), “Slowdance,” “3Hands/Divine Hand I,” “Colours of the Sunset.”