ESPERANZA SPALDING, “Songwrights Apothecary Lab” (Concord): 4
What do you need a song for? That question powers the Grammy-winning jazz composer, bassist and vocalist’s new album, a curious exploration of creativity and well-being that plays in the shadow of Coltrane and Monk. Inviting ethnomusicologists, neuroscientists and trusted musicians (Ganavya Doraiswamy, Corey King, Wayne Shorter, Raphael Saadiq) to participate in her titular lab’s experiments with sound and form, Spalding’s on singular turf (though “Formwelas” 3 and 6 approach the pop-conscious, progressive jazz of 2016’s “Emily’s D+Evolution”). Continually shifting time signatures and styles, from ethereal vocalizing and sweet acoustic folk balladeering to the theatrical, each track has a therapeutic intent. Whether they succeed depends on listeners’ willingness to discard preconceptions. Music as healer is not a new concept, but Spalding’s ambitious approach is.
VELVET STARLINGS, “Technicolour Shakedown” (Soundx3/AWAL/Orchard): 3½
Headed by 18-year-old guitarist/organist Christian Gisborne, this LA-based quartet’s self-described “beach-fuzz-psych” evokes ’60s legends (the Doors, the Kinks, the Animals) while managing to sound organic. The 10-track set, reportedly composed and produced by Gisborne at home after the pandemic kiboshed touring plans, is most infectious when celebrating the joys of live music in sweaty nightclubs amid growling fuzz-toned guitars, reverbed vocals and a slamming rhythm section. Highlights: “Back of the Train,” “There’s Nobody There,” “She Said (she said).” Not as hot as being there, but for now it’ll do.
STRAND OF OAKS, “In Heaven”
(Galacticana/Thirty Tigers): 4
Balancing grief and gratitude has been a necessary skill during the pandemic, one embodied by Timothy Showalter throughout his eighth studio album as Strand of Oaks, recorded last October in Silver Lake. The cathartic, big-hearted set’s studded with melodic hooks, hopeful messages and intense solos by Showalter, guest guitarists Carl Broemel and James Iha, and My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster, yet it’s gentler than 2019’s bracing “Eraserland.” “Jimi and Stan” imagines Showalter’s cat with Jimi Hendrix “in heaven/ making friends, going to shows”; bombastic production undercuts but doesn’t sour its sweetness. Highlights: a synth-heavy call for human connection, “Slipstream”; the spacey “Hurry”; John Prine tribute “Somewhere in Chicago”; “Galacticana” (“I don’t mean to drag you down/ Laughing as a self-defense, crying at my own expense together”).
DAR WILLIAMS, “I’ll Meet You Here”
The folk-pop singer-songwriter’s first album since 2015’s “Emerald” finds her topicality and clear-eyed insights into human nature undimmed, as she sketches immigrant and old-timer fears in “Little Town,” ponders the struggles of creative life (“You Give It All Away”), and chooses determination and hope over “smug frustration” in the face of climate change (“Today and Every Day”). Enlivened by Hammond B3 organ, cello and Stewart Lerman’s sympathetic production, and bookended by two songs that playfully address aging (“Time, Be My Friend,” “You’re Aging Well”), it’s a melodic, relatable collection that may attract new listeners without alienating longtime fans.