LADY BLACKBIRD, “Black Acid Soul”
It takes confidence to sing into spacious arrangements such as these, a quality possessed in abundance by LA-based vocalist Marley Munroe (“the Grace Jones of jazz,” per BBC DJ Gilles Peterson). Chris Seefried’s elegant production gives this stunning debut the feel of a refined classic, guiding the ear to the nuances of Munroe’s stop-you-in-your-tracks contralto as she transforms Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart” into an anthem of paradoxical self-empowerment, supplants the coiled tension of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” with raw passion, and eerily owns Sam Cooke’s “Lost and Looking.” Other highlights: sublime piano-vocal meditation “Fix It” (written to Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece”), a stark, emotionally ravishing take on Tim Hardin’s “It Will Never Happen Again,” and a hypnotic crawl inside the James Gang’s “Collage.”
JAMES MCMURTRY, “The Horses and the Hounds”
(New West): 4
It’s overstating things to say McMurtry sounds more alive on his first studio album since 2015’s “Complicated Game,” but he certainly sounds recharged. Reunited with guitarist David Grissom and producer Ross Hogarth, who engineered the Texas songwriter’s first two albums (1989’s “Too Long in the Wasteland” and 1992’s “Candyland”), McMurtry delivers another classic of barbed political commentary with roots-rocker “Operation Never Mind” (“No one’s gonna tell us we were wrong/ We won’t let the cameras near the fighting/ That way we won’t have another Vietnam”). But his character-centered narratives survey a broader range of humanity — tempering cynicism and tapping into subtle hope with flowing melodies for “If It Don’t Bleed” and “Vaquero,” and amplifying the mordant wit humanizing “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” with a quasi-rap and co-writer Daren Hess’ propulsive drumming. McMurtry occupies a rarified echelon as lyricist and storyteller, and he’s in game form, but it’s his expanded musical dynamics that make this a gratifying surprise.
ELEKTRIC VOODOO, “Telescope” (Illusion Tournet): 3½
Guitarist Scott Tournet’s Afrobeat-inspired psychedelic sextet follows March’s “Rarities, Vol. 1” live set with nine tracks dedicated to late Afrobeat drumming legend Tony Allen. Tournet, who co-founded the Nocturnals alongside Grace Potter before departing after 12 years, composed the songs with the San Diego-based ensemble, and their polyrhythmic tunes are infused with an egalitarian spirit (notably the funky “People of the Earth”). Fevered instrumental exchanges between saxophonist/keyboardists Bradley Nash and Travis Klein, percussionist Ty Kiernan and Tournet evoke the ’70s heyday of Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke as well as Fela Kuti, and should sate fans until tours resume. Highlights: “Chasing Ghosts”; “Cross That Line”; and hopeful single “Children Are the Revolution,” inspired by Parkland school shooting survivors and Greta Thunberg.
ANDERSON EAST, “Maybe We Never Die”
(Low Country/Elektra): 3½
A sense of not letting time or love go to waste permeates the raspy-voiced Alabama soul-rocker’s latest album, recorded and co-produced during the pandemic by longtime East collaborator Dave Cobb and Brent Cobb/Keith Urban keyboardist Philip Town. Infectious grooves enhanced with electronic dance beats pulse behind his intense vocals on seductive jams “Madelyn” and “Lights On” as well as the ’80s-style, synth-heavy “Hood of My Car,” countering unspoken existential threats with suggestions of healing intimacy. Questions about mortality and human spirit are most overtly addressed during the soaring title track (“Lightning in a bottle/ Breathing underwater/ Nothing ’bout us happened naturally/ Maybe we never die/ Heaven has no goodbyes”). Soul and R&B have always been a core element of East’s heretofore rootsy music; it’s a treat to hear him stretch more in that direction here.
FANTASTIC NEGRITO, “Rolling Through California”: 4
The Grammy-winning Oakland blues-rocker’s heart-lifting new single addresses California’s all-too-real struggles and hard times in the age of climate change while celebrating its legacy as a mecca of possibility. Bright, melodic guitar lines, a noodly keyboard jam and Miko Marks’ rousing harmonies reinforce hope for California’s future, defying lyrics warning of apocalypse if climate crisis warnings continue to be ignored. Per Fantastic Negrito, who’s teamed with Defy:Disaster, a portion of song proceeds will benefit “firefighters, first responders, and communities impacted by wildfires throughout North America.” Donations can be made at defydisaster.org.
PURPLE WITCH OF CULVER, “Seven of Wands”: 2½
The LA-based duo’s trippy new single, their fifth, is swathed in glossy synthesizers, layered vocals and skirling keyboards, and resonates with memories of ’60s psychedelic pop and the inescapable contemporary awareness that there is no easy or immediate way out of our current crises. Frontwoman/saxophonist Sarah Safaie is joined on vocals by guitarist/drummer Evan Taylor — a first — and his slightly weary-sounding intonations suit the cosmic worldview: “Loss is a factor of every person’s life/ … Standing down is not the answer/ It’s an illusion that we prefer.”
TRE BURT, “Dixie Red”: HHH½
Singing in the dusty, limber tones of a working-class troubadour, the Northern California guitarist and songwriter delivers a sun-dappled slice of musical poetry with this over-too-soon cut from his new album “You, Yeah, You,” just released by the Oh Boy label. Laced with bittersweet guitar melodies and labelmate Kelsey Waldon’s earnest harmony, the song is a closely detailed tribute to legendary songwriter and Oh Boy founder John Prine, an early champion of Burt’s music and a north star of integrity and inspiration for countless artists: “Blue smoke from my cigarette/ Danced upon my eye/ Moon has risen and it lit your way/ To Paradise.”
GABRIELS, “Love and Hate in a Different Time”: 3½
The empowering title track of the LA-based pop trio’s EP was released in December but continues to gain traction with its infectious refrain and classic soul style — balm for a socially and politically fraught time. Gospel-schooled frontman (and Season 10 “American Idol” contestant) Jacob Lusk’s velvety, precise falsetto conveys pain and resilience as a spirited chorus amplifies the weight of need and loss: “Even in the Valley/ Children smile through misery/ Diamond tears hide the casualties/ Grace and mercy, do you follow me?/ We lost it in the fire.” Video: https://bit.ly/GabrielsVideo