EMELI SANDÉ, Long Live the Angels  (Capitol): 3 STARS

Post-divorce, the soul-pop chart-topper strives for cathartic release and spiritual comfort. Opening track “Selah” declares, “My love is the bomb and forgiveness is the rocket” backed by a shimmery gospel choir that embellishes most of these 15 tracks. A swelling chorus and big production helped make “Hurt” a hit, but “Give Me Something’”s simplicity’s more effective; acoustic guitar and piano leave ample room for Sandé’s poignant plea (“Give me something that I can believe in”) to reverberate. More such moments — and more rhythmic variation — would make it easier to connect with the human need expressed. Highlights: “Breathing Underwater,” “Sweet Architect,” “Give Me Something.”

GILLIAN WELCH, Boots No. 1 The Official Revival Bootleg (Acony): 4 STARS

Welch was a festival favorite already championed by song miners like Emmylou Harris when “Revival” emerged to impressed reviews in 1996. It seemed an anomaly, an Appalachian blast from the past composed by a pair of Berklee grads: the LA-raised Welch and partner David Rawlings, whose refined guitar mastery shapes and deepens their sound. Songs like “Orphan Girl” and “Tear This Stillhouse Down” have since become Americana staples. Listening to outtakes and alternate mixes on this two-disc anniversary set, it’s illuminating to hear how Welch’s vocal style shifted as various melodies and rhythmic emphases evolved. Essential for fans and songwriters.

RUMER, This Girl’s in Love (A Bacharach & David Songbook) (East West): 3 STARS

With glass-smooth delivery and warm tones eerily reminiscent of Karen Carpenter, this UK songbird’s affection for midtempo ’70s-style pop seems preordained. Collaborating with husband (and Dionne Warwick musical director) Rob Shirakbari, she strolls through lush arrangements of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David catalogue, slowing down the Carpenters’ “Close to You” and closing anthem “What the World Needs Now is Love” just enough to personalize them. The standout’s “A House is Not a Home,” as elegant as it is heartbreaking.


(self-released): 3 STARS

The veteran Austin guitarist, harmonica player and former Snooky Pryor sideman savvily positions blues within a broader Americana canvas while mixing choice Willie Dixon and Sleepy John Estes covers with originals co-written mostly with multi-instrumentalist Scrappy Jud Newcomb. The Gary Nicholson co-write “Play Me (Like You Play Your Guitar)” is a greasy highlight; the moody “Roll on Mississippi,” “Bayou Blues” and the earnest title track are also noteworthy. Nicholas’ voice is thin and rough but knowing, and his dexterous slide playing offers evocative, ear-pleasing compensation.



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MIRANDA LAMBERT, The Weight of These Wings  (Vanner/Sony Music Nashville): 4 STARS

“Platinum” felt like image-conscious demographic-pushing; this double album, co-written with some of Nashville’s earthier songwriters, feels like reclamation of creative roots. Warmed by acoustic and baritone guitars, piano, steel, horns and some Daniel Lanois-style sonics, it’s stripped of production bombast that choked “Platinum.” Emotionally tempered, Lambert delivers her most personal vocal performances, like she’s taking stock of self and dreams. It’s a bruised statement of humanity and resilience, and strikingly honest. Highlights: the open-highway redemption of “Runnin’ Just in Case” (“Happiness ain’t prison but there’s freedom in a broken heart”), the healing “Getaway Driver,” rockabilly-riffing “Ugly Lights,” the yearning dream “Smoking Jacket,” melancholy “Tin Man” (“If you don’t mind the scars/ You give me your armor and you can have my heart”), and hopeful “I’ve Got Wheels.”

LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS, Special Night (Big Crown): 4 STARS

The soul/funk veteran dishes up more amorous anthems of connection and fidelity, his silk-and-gravel tone as persuasive as ever. But he addresses capital-letter Love too, with timely, motivating tracks like “Work to Do” and “Where is the Love” (“We used to love each other, care about one another/ …Care about community, care about human needs/ Father, what’s goin’ on”), and the driving funk of “Make the World,” an album highlight. At the El Rey in LA Dec. 1.


Keys dials back the diva magnificence and strives for polish-free authenticity. Results are mixed, primarily because several songs seem more underwritten than naturally raw, but it’s gratifying to hear her apply her considerable vocal and performance chops to soul- and gospel-steeped tracks like “The Gospel,” the spiritual-quoting “Pawn It All” and “Illusion of Bliss” uninterrupted by guest stars, though the trip-hop-textured “Blended Family (What You Do for Love),” with A$AP Rocky, is a highlight. Hopefully this 16-track set signals a fresh career direction.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll (Eight30): 3 STARS

Carroll’s a songwriter’s songwriter, as the artists gathered here know: James McMurtry, Hayes Carll, Slaid Cleaves, Matt the Electrician, Tim Easton and Aaron Lee Tasjan, who all understand songs from the inside out. This acoustic collection honors songwriting’s art, and Carll, Band of Heathens, Mando Saenz and Walt Wilkins give particularly engaging performances. Announcing song titles before singing, it’s like having some of Austin and East Nashville’s finest swapping songs in your living room, which definitely does not suck.,



THE POSIES, Solid States (MyMusicEmpire): 4 Stars

The ’90s power-pop darlings return with more keyboards and fewer guitars, the still-boyish harmonies between Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow brightening the cynical “M Doll” (“If I speak low it’s ’cause I’m afraid what comes if I’m understood/ In this dystopia of the free/ A little channel for you and me”), “The Sound of Clouds” and “Squirrel vs Snake,” which lends the album its title (“Don’t trust no guy who says he needs to be relied on/ Or a government that says I should be spied on”). Polished, smartly written, gratifyingly studded with hooks and provocative songs. Playing Pop Up Secret Show in Pasadena Friday.


AMOS LEE, Spirit (Republic): 3.5 Stars

The Philly troubadour leans hard into soul influences throughout this warmly produced set, whose New Orleans-inspired title track sums up the prevailing theme of searching for spiritual relief, augmented by romantic R&B jams (“Till You Come Back Through”). Opening piano phrases establish this isn’t as folky as past efforts, then Lee layers on organ, horns, strings and a gospel-like choir that boosts the jubilant uplift of songs like “Running Out of Time,” “One Lonely Night” and funky bonus track “Don’t Leave Me Lonely.” At Ace Hotel in Downtown LA Friday-Saturday, Nov. 11-12.





HOUSE OF WATERS, House of Waters  (GroundUP): 3 Stars

An ear-enticing fusion of jazz exploration, global percussion and hammered dulcimer, the traditional instrument that anchors this decidedly untraditional trio. Priya Darshini’s vocal adds human focus to the percussion-driven drama of “Hamza,” but otherwise this is an instrumental enterprise. “Francesco” opens with guest Dave Eggar’s resonant cello, soon joined by Max ZT’s virtuosic hammered dulcimer, whose trilling solo gradually swells into rock-like crescendos; another solo and West African drum patterns lift “Black Mallard” to dynamic heights. The sonic palette’s fresh and intriguing, though more vocals would be welcome.




JIM JAMES, Eternally Even (ATO): 3 Stars

The erstwhile My Morning Jacket frontman’s heavily processed “Same Old Lie” could be a theme song for 2016’s wackadoodle election season: “Stretch it out a little, try to milk every last dime/ Hate crime, shelter lines, trying to take what’s yours and mine/ Is there any peace to be found in our lifetime.” That’s followed by the synth-swaddled “Here in Spirit,” conveying this nine-track set’s only encouraging message (“If you don’t speak out, we can’t hear it”) over hypnotic beats. Downtempo, sometimes funky grooves surprise — like James, who consistently confounds expectations.



COMMON, Black America Again 

(Def Jam): 4 STARS

Angrily indignant, the Oscar-winning rapper/actor confronts headlines and history, teaming with “Glory” collaborator John Legend (“Rain”), BJ the Chicago Kid (“The Day Women Took Over”) and Bilal. The latter’s four tracks include the stirring “Letter to the Free,” its somber piano giving way to chain-gang beats and soul harmonies: “Southern leaves, Southern trees we hung from/ Baring souls, heroic songs unsung/ …Now we know the new Jim Crow/ is stop, search, and arrest our souls.” The stereotype-slamming title track namechecks Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Viola Davis, Cory Booker, and Stevie Wonder, who sings on the song — and whose presence invokes his landmark 1973 album “Innervisions,” which memorably decried the same injustices.


(self-released): 3 STARS

Honest delivery and bursts of beyond-her-years wisdom make this barely legal Boston singer-songwriter’s newest album ear-freshening. Working with Lori McKenna producer Lorne Entress, Reardon envisions sweet dreams (“When I Get to Tennessee”), offers soothing consolation (“Count”) and assesses the world as we all “Work More” (“So busy trying to go big, we forget the way home/ So busy trying to produce, we forget what we owe”). Her voice and poetic imagery (“Speak my words underwater to make sure you hear/ ’Cause you live underwater on black coffee, burnt fear”) makes her one to watch.

PIERS FACCINI, I Dreamed an Island

(Six Degrees/Beating Drum and 

Zamora): 3.5 STARS

The British native’s citizen-of-the-world creds are on effective display throughout a spirit-soothing, multilingual (English, French, Italian, Arabic) set elegantly veined with instrumental passages of guitar, oud, harmonium, psaltery, dulcimer, pipe organ and viola d’amore. The southern France resident responds to the 2015 terrorist attack (the graceful instrumental “Oiseau”), Syrian drone strikes (“Drone”) and Trump (the rhythmic “Bring Down the Wall”), and gently ponders choices (“Anima”). That island of which he dreamed? Twelfth-century Sicily, where cultural diversity briefly made it an enlightened mecca.


(Tendril Tales): 2.5 STARS

Joined by My Bloody Valentine alum Colm O’Ciosoig, the Mazzy Starr frontwoman sings like she’s in her own slow-swaying dream on hypnotic tracks like “Salt of the Sea,” her grainy whisper still duskily alluring. Her songs don’t noodle, though the nine-minute spoken-word dirge “Into the Trees” makes a curious opener. Warmer pop sensibilities buoy “Isn’t It True” and the gently grooving “Let Me Get There,” a ’70s-evoking duet with Kurt Vile that’s the biggest surprise here.



HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER, Heart Like a Levee (Merge): HHHH

M.C. Taylor’s sixth album fronting Hiss Golden Messenger poetically, sometimes cryptically grapples with the guilt shadowing a musician realizing dreams on the road while family waits at home. Fellow North Carolinian Tift Merritt’s warm soprano softens the gospel-infused blows of self-recrimination on the deceptively titled “Happy Day (Sister My Sister)”; “Cracked Windshield” finds gentle healing in “October coming on the backscratch wind” while “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” and “As the Crow Flies” shimmy on rubbery, Southern funky grooves pumped by Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan and Megafaun’s Brad and Phil Cook. Sonically and emotionally engaging. At Bootleg Theatre in LA Saturday, Oct. 22; at Hollywood Bowl Oct. 23.


TAKUYA KURODA,  Zigzagger  

(Concord): HHH½I

The Japanese-born trumpeter stretches beyond 2014’s José James-produced “Rising Son” with a searching, self-produced soul-jazz set that pushes funk and hip-hop further up in the mix with grooving tracks like “Thirteen” and “Actors.” Afrobeat polyrhythms that have long bubbled through Kuroda’s music flourish on the dynamic title track and “Think Twice,” a lively jam with Antibalas, while trombonist Corey King’s vocal steams up “Do They Know.” Kuroda downshifts for the classically styled “Little Words,” but the album’s prevailing mood’s more curious than contemplative. At York Manor in Highland Park Sunday, Oct. 23.


TRIXIE WHITLEY, Porta Bohemica 

(scamparty3000): HHH

Whitley’s music’s never been less than interesting, yet never as memorable as her strikingly elastic vocals. Her second full-length (after a few EPs) is notably more song-oriented while winding dubby beats around chiming guitar figure-eights (“Witness,” the effects-laden “Soft Spoken Words”) and electronically texturing intimate ruminations (“Closer”). Stark piano ballad “The Visitor” establishes her bona fides should she ever try soul diva-dom, but her broad range suggests more intriguing directions that will hopefully yield songs as penetrating as that voice. At West Hollywood’s Troubadour Tuesday, Oct. 25.


TAMI NEILSON, Don’t Be Afraid 

(Outside): HHH

The retro-styled Canadian’s aching tones earn comparisons to Patsy Cline, though Neilson’s earthier, interspersing lounge-y cocktail country with barnburners (“Holy Moses”) and gospel-ribbed blues (“Bury My Body”) that unleash some of her vocal ferocity. Now in New Zealand, she duets with fellow Kiwi Marlon Williams on the Cline-evoking “Lonely,” and ruefully wishes “God would accept currency” so she could reclaim her late father on the moving “If Love Were Enough” as guitarist Delaney Davidson makes judicious use of tremolo. Should attract Cline and Big Mama Thornton fans.




(Third Generation): 3.5 Stars

“What happened to this world?” this grooving duo implores on “Brother, What Happened?,” a funky gospel-soul anthem that somehow evokes Bill Withers, the Staple Singers and Grace Potter. R&B tracks like “Take Me Home” and “Why Don’t You Stay?” dress romantic messages (“I need love in the light of a thousand suns/ I need hope like water raining on my soul”) in gospel style and the honeyed grit of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North’s harmonies. Wilson’s ex-boss John Legend chimes in on “Leave It to the Sky” — a lesser track but a fine showcase for those stirring harmonies.



DR. JOHN & FRIENDS, The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music 

(Blackbird/Concord): 4 Stars

When you’re celebrating Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and New Orleans icon Dr. John, enlisting some Nevilles and other NOLA veterans is mandatory. George Porter Jr. sounds rough, but Irma Thomas, Tab Benoit, John Boutté, Anders Osborne and the late Allen Toussaint deliver maximum soul on this sparkling recording from a 2014 concert. Some of the most muscular performances come from outliers: Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Bingham, John Fogerty and Warren Haynes. Dr. John appears on only five of the 22 tracks, including a hearty duet with Springsteen (“Right Place Wrong Time”) and a steamy rendition of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love” with Aaron and Charles Neville. But Crescent City grease drips everywhere.,



GIANT PANDA GUERILLA DUB SQUAD, Make It Better (Rootfire): 3 Stars

The jamband veterans lean hard into core reggae influences with help from Beck/Ben Harper producer Danny Kalb, with intentionally uplifting songs like the title track (“Don’t make it bad/ Go make it better”) directed at an ailing world. “Walk Right Talk Right,” they advise over a corkscrewed rhythm, horns and spacey synth effects, while “Gotta Make a Living” and “Trouble Deep” counter daily life contradictions that have left listeners wary and worn with rubbery grooves and insistent hope.


KRISTIN CHENOWETH, The Art of Elegance 

(Concord): 4 Stars

The Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress/singer’s more restrained than usual — and that’s entirely to the good, because even at cruise setting her megawatt energy and operatically trained soprano can out-blast a blowtorch. She silkily croons melodic standards by the likes of Gershwin, Sinatra, Rodgers & Hart, Bacharach & David, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer; the lone contemporary track is producer Steve Tyrell’s sweet “You’re My Saving Grace.” The ear-pleasingly polished set’s arrangements and performances amply live up to its title.


DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, American Band (ATO): 4 Stars

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have never shied from speaking out, and in the DBTs’ 20th year, they’re pulling no punches about mass shootings, the NRA, xenophobia, police brutality, racial intolerance, willful ignorance. This “rock and roll call to arms” lacks the raging immediacy of, say, 2003’s “Decoration Day,” but stands as a doubled-fist “Hell, yeah!” rejoinder to a million kitchen conversations struggling to connect bloody dots between past and disturbing future. Highlights: the rocking and roiling “Ramon Casiano” (“Killing’s been the bullet’s business since back in 1931”), “Guns of Umpqua,” the darkly grooving “Ever South.” At Teragram Ballroom in Downtown LA Oct. 11-12. 

DOYLE BRAMHALL II, Rich Man (Concord): 4 Stars

The well-pedigreed guitar slinger’s traveled far beyond 2001’s wanly received “Welcome” — to India and Morocco — and collaborated extensively with Eric Clapton and Tedeschi Trucks Band. That journeying’s woven into this thickly textured tapestry of sounds, from Bill Withers drummer James Gadson’s spoken intro to the funky “Mama Can’t Help You” through a reverb-soaked cover of Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A Comin’.” Striking musicianship services deeply felt, solid songs like the Ferguson-inspired “Hands Up” and acoustic-textured “New Faith” (featuring Norah Jones). The highlight’s the gospel-tinged “My People,” electrified by Ustad Surjeet Singh’s keening sarangi and Bramhall’s soulful playing and message: “Break it down to the bones and you’ll see now/ All people are my people.”

ÉLAGE DIOUF, Melokáane (Pump Up the World): 3 Stars

This handsomely produced set from Juno Award-winning Senegalese-Canadian songwriter/percussionist Diouf finds him teaming with Youssou N’Dour guitarist Mamadou Jimmy Mbaye for a yearning reading of Peter Gabriel’s “Secret World,” sung in Wolof, and consciously striving for uplift. Opener “Mandela,” with its rousing chorus, simulated horns and snippets of Mandela’s voice, sets a celebratory tone carried forward by the title track (“Reflection” in Wolof), exuberant “Sai Sai” (“Mischievous”) and “Just One Day,” a swelling ballad featuring raspy Scots-Canadian pop star Johnny Reid.

AARON LEWIS, Sinner (Big Machine/Dot): 2.5 Stars

The country-loving Staind frontman effectively conveys vulnerability, but his burly baritone steamrolls the soul out of Chris Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You.” Lewis’ heavy-handed lyrics torpedo tracks like “Northern Redneck” and swingy single “That Ain’t Country,” whose evocation of “old songs that my granddad used to play/ Full of pain and heartache and desperation and the ones that got away” gets undercut by lines aping Hank Jr. Counterbalancing that: bared-heart standout “Mama,” and Buddy Cannon’s polished production, sweetened by Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and harmonies from Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski.



(Dead Oceans): 3½ STARS

Relying primarily on synthesizers and her own looped and layered, intricately harmonized vocals, the Brooklynite’s third full-length album is one of 2016’s more intriguing projects. The hypnotic “Nebula” somehow conjures imagined sense memories of floating amidst veils of stardust, while “Wist” suggests chanting angels in an echo chamber. Barwick uses her voice like an instrument mostly to generate sound, with few words. When Mas Ysa’s Thomas Arsenault adds his keening edge to the vocal textures of “Same,” the effect’s penetratingly emotional. Dutch cellist Maarten Vos’ cello, warming the piano-grounded “Heading Home,” sounds more human than Barwick’s reverberating soprano. Chillingly beautiful. At the Broad in downtown LA Saturday, Sept. 24.




DAWES, We’re All Gonna Die 


A rubbery, synth-driven rumble opens the LA foursome’s fifth album, signaling that the crew once invited to back The Band’s Robbie Robertson because of their facility with rootsier rock ‘n’ roll is exploring a rhythmically tougher, ’80s-influenced sonic road, this time with ex-bandmate Blake Mills producing. Their trademark harmonies remain, sweetening the sting of falsetto-voiced frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics on edgy tracks like “One of Us,” “Roll With the Punches,” the reggae-tinged “Picture of a Man,” and “When the Tequila Runs Out.”



(Rough Trade): 3½ STARS

Anthemic single “New Song” throbs and glistens with this album’s sonic signature: reverb, sticky synths and beats, vocals wrapped inside like jam in sweet cake. The title track’s brooding opening breaks into an affirming dance; the coolly dreamy “Dre” evokes Warpaint’s self-titled 2014 album; “Today Dear” floats like acoustic mist. Other tracks offer provocative guitar solos, minus the perks of transport or resolution. It’s a frustratingly uneven collection of sleek sounds, but it piques interest in hearing what this promising quartet does next. At Music Tastes Good fest in Long Beach Saturday, Sept. 24.


BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY, Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad  (Cooking Vinyl): 3½ STARS

High concept — train songs recorded at train stations and trackside while traveling cross-country — solidly realized. No wheels get reinvented by Bragg and Henry, longtime friends with shared affinity for Americana and history. But their cleanly recorded acoustic guitars and harmonies ring with warmth, trains humming low behind conversational performances of chestnuts like Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” and Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby.” It’s a surprisingly satisfying reminder of a time when mobility — geographic as well as social — became life-changing reality. At the Palace in Hollywood Oct. 25.



ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES, Sea of Noise (Records): 4 Stars

Composed partly in a San Bernardino retreat between Coachella weekends, the combustible Alabama soul octet’s ambitious sophomore album addresses tolerance in varied, sometimes metaphorical forms across an expanded sonic canvas. The funky rocker “Midnight on Earth” imagines a celestial lover (“I can feel it now your body taking over me/ Red eyes green skin make me do things”) while evoking Sly Stone with its stormy buildup of harmonies and horns; frontman Paul Janeway’s soaring pleas pierce spiritual and personal questions in “Burning Rome.” “I’ll Be Your Woman” reverses gender roles, “All I Ever Wonder” and the gospel-textured “Waves” reference hypocrisy and racial intolerance, and the whole conscientiously crafted set rewards extended listening. At the Wiltern in LA Sept. 20.

IZZY BIZU, A Moment of Madness (Sony): 3.5 Stars

The South London singer seems consciously positioned on the soul-pop continuum between Amy Winehouse and Duffy; less gritty, more girlish, with vocal texture resembling both. The 22-year-old’s danceable tunes are similarly ear-grabbing, often reflecting lighthearted romantic concerns (“Skinny”) and questions of identity (“Circles”). Winehouse’s influence is especially discernible in the retro “Adam & Eve” and “Lost Paradise” (“Darlin’, I know nothin’ is as it seems/ Darlin’ let’s go escape reality”), though Bizu displays a lighter touch and sounds not like she’s copying but building on what’s gone before. 

DANIEL LANOIS, Goodbye to Language (Anti): 3 Stars

Thoughts drift into unexpected combinations, seemingly part of the eclectic producer/artist’s intent for this provocatively titled set. How listeners respond likely depends on their appreciation of ambient sonic exploration; a few tracks feel more fragmentary than complete. Lanois’ electronically enhanced pedal steel creations — accompanied here by Rocco Deluca’s lap steel — possess a transporting, outer-space dreaminess, a quality boosted by the amorphousness of compositions like “Deconstruction” and “The Cave,” the latter sounding like it’s catching lost radio signals. Highlights: “Satie,” “Later That Night,” “Blue Diamond.”

RONNIE EARL AND THE BROADCASTERS, Maxwell Street (Stony Plain): 4 Stars


It’s no slam on Diane Blue’s vocals, which are quite good, to say that the instrumentals are the main event here. Roomful of Blues alum Earl brings such richness of tone and eloquent phrasing to his electric solos that any human voice feels superfluous, particularly when Dave Limina’s Hammond B3 organ swells in sympatico harmony. Earl’s “In Memory of T-Bone” and “Blues for David Maxwell” and Limina’s “Elegy for a Bluesman” achieve moments of real, moving poetry.



PROPHETS OF RAGE, The Party’s Over 

(Caroline): 4 Stars

A five-man, five-track smackdown of the political establishment’s dysfunctional ego, the outraged supergroup’s arrival could hardly be more timely. Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord, Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford, Tom Morello and Brad Wilk, and Cypress Hill’s B-Real take their collective name from PE’s righteous anthem, which roars with angry guitars and a new verse from B-Real. The Beastie Boys-tweaking “No Sleep Til Cleveland” takes aim at the GOP, while the title track captures the prevailing national mood: “Raise your fist and with one voice the people say/ The party’s over.” Prophets of

INGRID MICHAELSON, It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense (Cabin 24): 3 Stars

For an album informed by divorce and death, the pop-savvy New Yorker uncovers a remarkable number of silver linings in life-darkening clouds. Beyond the irresistible “I get it/ whatever” hook of kiss-off anthem “Hell No,” there’s the similarly infectious “Celebrate,” with its feel-good message and snappy vocal riffs delivered by Michaelson’s nimble soprano, and the synth-heavy “Miss America,” which resurrects her mother’s wisdom while registering sadness that she’s gone. They balance the piercing piano balladry (“I Remember Her,” “Drink You Gone,” “Old Days”) that remains Michaelson’s strong suit.


(Mahogany/Burning Rope): 3.5 StarsI

The opening bars of the sensitive Irish popster’s third album are all synths and space, confirming that last year’s “How to Waste a Moment” single was no aberration but a signpost; the acoustic guitars and pianos that warmed 2010’s “Early in the Morning” and 2014’s “Post Tropical” have been replaced. Working with Drake producer Nineteen 85, among others, McMorrow finesses the intimate balladry he’s always done well but with subtle beats, samples and effects, as with the moving “Surreal.” Even an R&B plea like “Last Story,” with its dynamic buildup of electric guitars and harmonies, avoids going over the top; he could be spooning his melancholy falsetto into a lover’s ear.


(Yep Roc): 3 Stars

Rooted in Raleigh, North Carolina’s, bluegrass-deep heritage, the unplugged foursome may suit up like Bill Monroe’s boys and sing around one mic onstage, but they’re not yoked to tradition. Their seventh studio album’s prominently threaded with bassist Greg Readling’s solid piano work, while banjoist Chandler Holt’s “If I Had My Way” and instrumental “Bull City Strut” pick up the pace around frontman/guitarist Dave Wilson’s ruminative songs, which occasionally evoke Ryan Adams. Standouts include the metaphoric “Moving Pictures of My Mind,” good-naturedly swinging “Show Me the Door” and bittersweet “Jackie Boy,” celebrating a beloved dog.



MILD HIGH CLUB, Skiptracing 

(Stones Throw): 3 STARS

There’s a narcotic drift to tracks like “Chasing My Tail” and “Kokopelli” that would have made them a fitting soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970-set film “Inherent Vice.” That squares with bandleader Alex Brettin’s description of this quintet’s sophomore album as a shamus “attempting to trace the steps of the sound and spirit of American music” through an electronic weave of cool bossa nova rhythms, Steely Dan-style guitars and synths. Dreamy and occasionally draggy (“Carry Me Back,” “Head Out”), its appeal’s more cerebral than emotional. At the Echo in Echo Park Tuesday, Aug. 30.

JOSEPH, I’m Alone, No You’re Not 


Oregon-raised sisters Allison, Meegan and Natalie Closner team with Bright Eyes/Jenny Lewis producer Mike Mogis for a tuneful, engagingly crafted set sporting a sleeker pop sheen than 2014’s “Native Dreamer Kin.” Soaring choruses on tracks like the defiant anthem “White Flag,” Neko Case-esque “Canyon” and catchy single “SOS (Overboard)” allow their sibling harmonies to shine, though “Honest,” which gives the album its title, is the most affecting in part because it pulls back to simultaneously reveal vulnerability and familial bonds. Should appeal to fans of Haim and Liz Longley. 

MICHAEL FRACASSO, Here Come the Savages (Blue Door): 4 STARS

It’s been five years since the respected Austin singer-songwriter’s acclaimed “Saint Monday,” time fraught by a divorce that informs some of this bracing set’s toughest songs. His signature angelic tenor sounds notably more fragile on the striking title track and a strangely hypnotic reinvention of Willie Cobbs’ blues “You Don’t Love Me.” Sonically, it’s a melodic ear-pleaser, with psychedelic synthesizers, pedal steel, French horn, violin, piano balladry and rocking guitars complementing each other like murmurs and cheers in a conversation with friends who know the dark tunnel from which you’ve emerged. At the Cinema Bar in Culver City Sunday, Aug. 28.

HIRIE, Wandering Soul (Rootfire Cooperative/Ineffable): 3 STARS

Seductive reggae grooves and smooth guest turns (Nahko Bear, Trevor Hall) make this easy listening for a hot, trying summer. Frontwoman Hirie (Patricia Jetton) pairs a melodic pop sensibility with familiar themes (“Don’t Take My Ganja,” “You Won’t Be Alone,” the didgeridoo-spiked “Wandering Soul”), her girlish vocals comfortably supported by a solid band (MVP props to trombonist/percussionist Andrew McKee). Not surprisingly, personal songs are the most distinctive (“Woman Comes First,” “Almost Home”), but it’s all about the vibe. Check the monkey mind and “ride the wave.”




Five years after the Joe Henry-produced “Passenger,” the Irish songstress returns with this somberly beautiful set co-written with and produced by the National guitarist Aaron Dressner. Piano dominates and guitars, banjo, cello, violin, trombone and subtle percussion waft in and out, delicately complementing the light burrs and ethereal poignance of Hannigan’s singing. For “Anahorish,” a lush a cappella setting of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Hannigan’s layered voice is the lone instrument. It’s all that’s needed. Other highlights: the dreamy “Prayer for the Dying,” “Fall” (“Hold your horses, hold your tongue/ Hang the rich, spare the young”), and the insomnia-themed “Lo” (“Nights are only ashes, all days gone by burned black”).



RYLEY WALKER, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans): 3.5 STARS

For his third album in as many years, the prolific guitarist expands his stylistic palette and hands production reins to ex-Wilco keyboardist/guitarist Leroy Bach. “The Halfwit in Me” is a strong, ringing opener showcasing his virtuosic playing. “The Roundabout,” a light, wordy rocker, captures the relaxed comfort of hanging with friends: “Can I buy you a drink?/ My credit is quite shit/ We can all laugh and have tap water.” Other tracks are less compelling. The piano-forward “Funny Thing She Said” evokes Joni Mitchell, minus her lyrical and vocal range. Still, this sustains interest in what Walker does next.


MONEY CHICHA, Echo en Mexico 



(Vampi Soul): 3.5 STARS

Think Peruvian cumbia belly-to-belly with conjunto tejano, and you’ll have some idea which dancing shoes to strap on for this Austin-based sextet’s instrumental set. Supposedly Austin’s first chicha band (what took so long?), it’s a side project for Grupo Fantasma and Brownout members long enamored of chicha’s deeply psychedelic grooves and surf guitar twang. If this were a light show, tracks like “Yo No Soy Turku,” “Animalitos,” “Chicha Negra” and the funk-dipped “Quieren Efectos” would be all heavily saturated reds, purples and greens.




(Self-Released):  3 STARS

Impeccable picking and smooth, close harmonies from bluegrass veterans Bud Bierhaus and Eric Uglum, performing gospel standards (“The Unclouded Day,” “Someday My Ship Will Sail”) and a sweet Bierhaus original “A Mother’s Prayer.” The world may not need another cover of “Darcy Farrow,” but the melancholy George Jones chestnut “Open Pit Mine” glows, burnished by those harmonies and Rob Ickes’ Dobro fills. Pasadena Folk Music Society presents the Vintage Martins’ bluegrass gospel show at Arlington Garden in Pasadena Sunday morning, Aug. 21.



BLIND PILOT, And Then Like Lions 


The Portland sextet’s third album’s thoughtfully crafted ear candy whose pop hooks divert attention from its sad origins: frontman Israel Nebeker composed the 10 songs in the wake of his father’s death and the demise of a long-term relationship. Handsomely orchestrated strings and sweet harmonies cast an upbeat lure onto a lyrical undercurrent of loss that gradually reveals its depths during standouts like the title track, “What is Yet” and “Packed Powder” (“I started working as a dimestore clerk/ I thought it would make me the kind to put you first/ My only dreams were in fluorescent light/ My only goal was to forget what I was worth”).

NICE AS FUCK, Nice as F**k

(Loves Way): 3.5 STARS

Mere months after teaming for a Bernie Sanders rally, Jenny Lewis, Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster and the Like’s Tennessee Thomas surprised fans with this tuneful set. The unexpected, barely promoted release isn’t the only surprise; guitars are absent, keyboards are sparse, and drums are forward in the mix. The resulting dubby-dreamy effect showcases Lewis’ silken croon and bare-bones songwriting. If lyrics are less than inspiring (“You’re not the one/ Let’s have some fun”), trippy tracks like “Angel” and “Mall Music” nonetheless deliver welcome midsummer respite. 


JONAH TOLCHIN, Thousand Mile Night 

(Yep Roc): 3 STARS

Jersey boy Tolchin headed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record his latest album (co-produced with Marvin Etzioni), which is rife with poetic imagery (“Kokomo clouds rolling like a freight train/ Drunk on miles, spun on black rain”), slide guitar, banjo, lap steel, mandolin, fiddle, Hammond B3 organ and congas. As Tolchin roams through acoustic country soul, gospel, country and blues, rootsy arrangements spotlight his warm baritone and message: “It’s up to you to see the beauty in the ugliest of days.”


LINCOLN DURHAM, Revelations of a Mind Unraveling (Droog): 2.5 STARS

The third album from the multi-instrumental Texan, as tightly coiled as a rattler on a bad day, flirts with gospel tropes (“I wish you peace when your devil come a-callin’/ I wish you peace when you’re falling in your grave”) then shafts mercy with vengence (“In life, I hope you suffer my name”). Durham’s intense, rockabilly- and old-time-studded visions of “Rage and Fire and Brimstone,” “Bones” and “Gods of Wood and Stone” aren’t as amped as his “Southern-gothic-psycho-blues-revival-punk-one-man-band” self-description suggests, but may appeal to Scott Biram and Bob Log III fans. At Hotel Café in Hollywood Friday, Aug. 12.



LORI MCKENNA, The Bird & the Rifle 

(CN/Thirty Tigers): 4 Stars

Since 1998’s “Paper Wings & Halo,” the grounded Massachusetts mom-of-five’s been championed by savvy singer-songwriter fans and artists like Tim McGraw, who recently hit country gold with McKenna’s “Humble and Kind.” Her yearning alto complemented by Dave Cobb’s warm production, McKenna delivers “Humble and Kind” more conversationally, its maternally caring advice (“Know the difference between sleeping with someone and sleeping with someone you love”) marking a wise high point amidst 10 sharply observed, melodic portraits and confessionals about “Giving Up on Your Hometown,” enduring romance (the Duran Duran- and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”-referencing “We Were Cool”) and relationship battles (“Wreck You,” the metaphorically provocative title track). No mythologizing or braggadocio; just songs about life as it’s lived.


Habana Dreams (Motema): 4 Stars

Ebullient bandleader Martinez called his New York ensemble to his hometown of Havana for this engagingly percussive set, recorded in Egrem studio (of Buena Vista Social Club fame). They’re joined by Cuban locals like Descemer Bueno, Isaac Delgado and rapper Telmary Diaz, and all-star guests. Rubén Blades trades robust vocals with Martinez during the traditional “Compa Galletano,” while Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet gilds Blades’ comparatively restrained “Antadilla” and Angelique Kidjo’s soulful tones introduce “Tributo a Santiago de Cuba.” The prevailing feel-good vibe’s owed to more than the historic occasion.

CHARLIE HUNTER, Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth (GroundUP): 3.5 Stars

Recording live in the studio, the innovative Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy/T.J. Kirk alum generously listens to trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and cornetist Kirk Knuffke during instrumentals like the rhumba-teasing “Latin for Travelers” and Mike Tyson-inspired title track. But his seven-string guitar frames the conversation (with longtime drummer Bobby Previte) and leads the groove during Hendrix-y groover “No Money, No Honey,” the Broonzy tribute “Big Bill’s Blues” and “Looks Like Somebody Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication,” with Fowlkes and Knuffke offering animated commentary.


(indie): 4 Stars

Dallas native Crockett works retro R&B like good buddy Leon Bridges, mixed with gritty blues and honky-tonk. It’s a viscerally stirring, solidly performed combination that evokes times when music brought people together in roadhouses face to face rather than via Facetime, as the affable swing of “Ain’t Got No Time to Lose” segues into the dark blues lament “Out of Bad Luck” and Crockett’s Cajun spin on Freddy Fender’s classic “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” One of 2016’s most musically satisfying surprises.




(Tell It/Kobalt): 4 Stars

It’s been 50 years since the erstwhile Neville Brother scored his first number one single (the George Davis-Lee Diamond ballad “Tell It Like It Is”), yet this is the first album for which he’s written most of the material. Working with co-writer and Soulive/Tedeschi Trucks Band producer Eric Krasno, Neville gilds horn-punched funk and R&B (“Be Your Man,” the smoky “All of the Above”), New Orleans second-line beats (“Stompin’ Ground”) and gospel (“Heaven”) with that still supple tenor. “Orchid in the Storm” veers into the sticky-sweet balladry for which he’s famous, but other tracks and Krasno’s production draw out Neville’s earthy complexity.

CARSON MCHONE, Goodluck Man 

(Good Horse): 3.5 Stars

Almost literally baptized with beer (her dad owned a brewery), McHone broke into Austin’s music scene performing for happy hour dancers. There’s two-stepping twang aplenty in honky-tonkers like “Maybe They’re Just Really Good Friends,” but her singing and writing convey an edge and vulnerable soul that transcend genre, from the lonesome storytelling of “Dram Shop Gal” to the title track’s troubled intimacy (“Forgiveness is a funny word, used when we are lyin’/ We give ourselves a heavy dose just to keep from cryin’”). At the Mint in LA July 21.

MARQUIS HILL, The Way We Play (Concord): 4 Stars

Backed by his tight Blacktet ensemble, the Chicago-raised trumpeter tips his horn to his hometown with a meaty set that boldly reinvents standards by early influences Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Charlie Chaplin, whose whimsical “Smile” becomes a bass-forward 7/4 seduction over bass, cajon and trumpet. The six-minute-plus title track’s a muscular beast preaching intent through poet Harold Green III’s spoken word: “It tastes like hope and smell like Blue Note/ … For every Sandy Hook there’s five Sandra Blands.”

PAUL KELLY, Seven Sonnets & a Song 

(Gawd Aggie/Cooking Vinyl): 3.5 Stars

The prolific Australian singer-songwriter sets Shakespearean sonnets to music, and both concept and execution impress. Starting with slinky “Sonnet 138,” settings fit Kelly’s oeuvre: simple instrumentation, catchy hooks, pretty folk and pop melodies, with rock drama animating the swaying “My True Love Hath My Heart,” written by Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney and sung by Vika Bull, and the angry “Sonnet 60.” The Bard’s 16th-century poetry glides off Kelly’s tongue like everyday speech, thanks to his deep familiarity with the text and its internal rhythms.



BARETO, Impredecible 

(World Village): 3.5 Stars

The Peruvian party band’s latest cumbia platter finally gets its stateside release, and it’s a hip, handsomely produced invitation to step and spin around the room. The rubbery beats of “Bombo Baile” and the TV-skewering “La Pantalla” are addictive, while the festejo number “El Loco” is warmed by Susana Baca’s sultry tones; “La Semilla” offers a dreamy change of pace from the electronic twang of guitarists Rolo Gallardo and Joaquín Mariátegui’s bold fretwork.

THE BREATH, Carry Your Kin 

(RealWorld): 3 Stars

A moody, atmospheric collaboration between nuanced vocalist/flutist Rioghnach Connolly and ex-Cinematic Orchestra guitarist Stuart McCallum, backed by Cinematic Orchestra drummer Luke Flowers and pianist John Ellis. Connolly’s rich tones, also heard on Afro Celt Sound System’s “The Source,” ground the ambient settings, which mostly float in a pop-folk otherworld occasionally stirred with rock drama (the pensive “Antwerp,” “Boat Song”). Alluring as they are, the songs aren’t as distinctive as the vocal and instrumental parts that make tracks like “Harvest” and the gracefully fingerpicked “For You” pretty ear candy.

THE RELATIVES, Goodbye World (Ubiquity): 4 Stars

This gritty gospel funk ensemble, a Dallas-based regional act in the ’70s, was resurrected from oblivion by the release of the 2009 compilation “Don’t Let Me Fall.” That inspired a proper studio album, 2013’s mighty fine “The Electric Word,” and now this rousing swan song, which co-founder Rev. Gean West finished before dying last year. “Forgive Me Now (Songbird Goes Home),” is a swaying farewell to West; the other seven tracks offer stirring messages (“You Gotta Do Right,” “What You Say”) over funk grooves, wah-wah guitar, multipart harmonies and sweet soul melodies. The music moves, in every way. Highlights: “Rational Culture/Testimony,” the a cappella “He Never Sleeps.”

WHITEHORSE, The Northern South Vol. 1 

(Six Shooter) 2.5 Stars

Recording another artist’s song alongside your own suggests personal connection with the material; recording a whole EP of covers makes a statement. But any statement made here’s unclear. Canadian husband-and-wife duo Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland take a happily unconventional approach to six blues chestnuts, dressing up Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” and Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” with sleek electronic beats and processed harmonies. Doucet’s slide work animates Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” and kitchen sink percussion thrusts Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing” into a fresh groove. But the essential element that gives blues meaning — passion — is missing.



MITZKI, Puberty 2 

(Dead Oceans): 3.5 STARS

Smart indie-rock animated by the push-pull dynamic between Mitski Miyawaki’s poetically revealing lyrics and her cool delivery. That fundamental contrast between smooth surfaces and tensions below plays out in every track. Musically, it’s made interesting by unexpected touches like the saxophone lifting “Happy” out of dispassionate analysis, crashing cymbals pushing the sadly crooned “Your Best American Girl” toward anthemic indignation, and sound effects — creaking doors? Gunshots? — enveloping guitar squall and analog loops on the melodic “Crack Baby.” At the Echo in Echo Park Thursday, July 7.

THE RAVE-UPS, Town + Country 

(Omnivore): 4 STARS

1985’s long out of print “Town + Country” wears its years well, thanks to tough, punchy production and Podrasky’s melodic pop songwriting. “Pretty in Pink” film fans should recognize “Positively Lost Me,” represented here by the studio version and a live radio performance. The latter’s one of 11 previously unreleased tracks (including spirited covers of Pete Seeger, Merle Travis and San Diego pal Kimm Rogers) that deepen this reissue’s value by illuminating the Rave-Ups’ eclectic tastes and rootsy influences, and how they influenced emerging Americana bands. At El Cid in Hollywood Thursday, July 7.

ERIC LINDELL, Matters of the Heart 

(Red Parlor): 3.5 STARS

Twenty years into his recording career, the California-raised, New Orleans-based guitarist and songwriter defies labels as he tastefully blends elements of blues, R&B, country soul and swamp rock. Lindell’s hooky songs are constructed with deep understanding of his forebears, and his conversationally soulful vocals are comforting as a worn shirt as he transforms George Jones’ hit “She Thinks I Still Care” into a grooving jam, Spooner Oldham and Dann Penn’s “Wrong Too Long” into a gospel-infused vow, and Merle Haggard’s “Here in Frisco” into smooth blues. Emotionally and musically satisfying. At the Mint in LA Tuesday, July 12.

DAVID BROZA, East Jerusalem West Jerusalem (Film Movement): 3.5 STARS

Recording is always logistically challenging, but the explosive magnitude of complication powers Israeli-born singer-songwriter David Broza’s 2013 documentary, now released after making festival rounds. Subtitled “8 Days and 8 Nights of Music, Food and Camaraderie,” it depicts Broza and Israeli-Arab musicians recording on Jerusalem’s Palestinian side; participating friends include Steve Earle, singer Mira Awad and Palestinian filmmaker/musician Issa Freij. Moments of sweetness, like Israeli and  Palestinian teens harmonizing, are undercut by scenes of Jerusalem Day violence. A random tagger’s filmed spraying a message echoing Broza’s own: “Jerusalem is stronger than the wall.”



SARA WATKINS, Young in All the Wrong Ways (New West): 4 Stars

Throughout her third solo album, produced by Gabe Witcher, the Nickel Creek alum’s violin stays mostly silent. Her primary instrument is her silky, sometimes gritty soprano — the voice of a matured, startlingly honest songwriter, who howls “Move Me” and the rocking title track like a woman raging to survive, and bravely confronts a lengthy relationship’s “Invisible” dissolution (“Has it all been a delusion, endless hoping for the best/ Or is there a tie that binds beyond this test”). It’s a fine set of bracing truth. At Hollywood Bowl July 1; at Largo at the Coronet in LA July 7.

AZIZA BRAHIM, Abbar el Hamada (Glitter Beat): 3.5 Stars

Accompanied by masterful Malian guitarists Kalilou Sangare and Samba Toure and Senegalese percussionist Sengane Ngom, the Saharawi singer and activist weaves together West African and Mediterranean rhythmic elements as she gives personal voice to refugees stranded in camps along Algeria’s Saharan edge. Raised in such a camp, now exiled in Barcelona, Brahim’s emotional conviction is affecting throughout, particularly during the graceful flamenco-turned phrases of “El Canto de la Arena” and “Los Muros” (“Another fleeting star was seen/ Crossing the wall tonight/ Undetected by the radar/ Unnoticed by the guard”).

ROYAL SOUTHERN BROTHERHOOD, The Royal Gospel (Ruf): 3 Stars

Only Cyril Neville and tasty drummer Yonrico Scott remain of RSB’s founding lineup, but the message of brotherhood remains. There’s a bit less blues-rock, more funk, and greater cohesion thanks to muscular playing and David Z’s snappy production. A slow-grooving rendition of Pops Staples’ “I Wonder Why” is of a conscientious piece with gospel entries “Stand Up” and “Spirit Man” (co-written by Neville and Walker, the latter with Gary Nicholson), and Neville and Walker’s funky “Hooked on the Plastic.” Should appeal to Neville Brothers fans.

A. SINCLAIR, Get Out of the City (Dangerbird): 4 Stars

It’s rare to stumble across an album this solid, and solidly gratifying, from start to finish. Boston-raised, Austin-based indie-rocker Sinclair’s songs are smartly crafted, and he pivots confidently from meaty guitar-driven rockers (“They Breed & Say Hello,” “Grab, Pull & Separate”) to power pop (“You Got a Heart”) and acoustic-textured Americana (“Magic in Chapel Hill”) like the seasoned punk/country veteran he is. There’s a freshness to his lyrical connections and arrangements that stirs curiosity to hear what he says next.



THE AVETT BROTHERS, True Sadness (American/Republic): 3 Stars

The North Carolina siblings’ ninth album delivers plenty of their trademark emotive balladry, though the title track’s more upbeat than implied. It’s a mixed set. Gospel-ribbed single “Ain’t No Man,” a rhythmically engaging highlight, suggests they’ve turned a musical corner, but few other tracks (the harmonious “Smithsonian,” “Divorce Separation Blues,” the sweetly lulling “I Wish I Was”) connect with similar energy or distinction. “Satan Pulls the Strings” promisingly marries traditional themes, banjo and fiddle to drum machines and synths, but song substance winds up competing with production effects to be heard.

JOE PURDY, Who Will Be Next? (Mudtown Crier): 4 Stars

The onetime Hotel Café regular’s rambles from LA to Mississippi provided timely observations and characters that give his potent songs the philosophical and scenic import of Woody Guthrie. Purdy’s less strident; his vocals are agreeably reminiscent of fellow troubadour Brian Wright, and over fingerpicked guitar, fiddle and subtle organ, he conveys big pictures with details. Highlights: “New Year’s Eve,” “War Dogs,” the haunting “Cursin’ Air” (“There’s a grieving mother down on the square/ Lighting candles, cursin’ air/ There’s a rattled country with covered eyes/ Locked and loaded, shooting wild”).

MARGARET GLASPY, Emotions and Math (ATO): 3 Stars

Listeners entranced by Glaspy’s smoothly angelic vocal contributions to Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project may be startled by her throaty growls and tough, confrontational guitar playing here. “I’ve been sitting silent because I thought you liked me quiet,” she snarls during edgy rocker “Pins and Needles,” a defiant declaration of self. Intermittent moments — a quicksilver trill, a flash of lyrical insight  — hint at her folkier side, but this is an electric project in multiple senses. Other highlights: the snappy title track, “Somebody to Anybody,” “Parental Guidance.”

LEVI PARHAM, These American Blues (Music Road): 4 Stars

Echoes of fellow Oklahomans J.J. Cale and Leon Russell and sympatico producer Jimmy LaFave are discernible in Parham’s soulful roadhouse-meets-the-church-house Americana, but what’s most evident is the grounded confidence of a blossoming craftsman. There’s more than a little soul shouter in his toughly supple vocals; whether raised in roots-rockers like “Gonna Be a Long Day” and “Held in High Regard” or channeled into the bluesy “Wrong Way to Hold a Man,” that makes the hard-earned hope expressed all the more winning. Should appeal to fans of LaFave, John Fullbright, Foy Vance.



ELIZABETH COOK, Exodus of Venice (Agent Love/Thirty Tigers): 4 Stars

It’s been six years since the SiriusXM “Apron Strings” radio host’s “Welder,” four since the more acoustic “Gospel Plow,” and the interim’s brought death, divorce, rehab, new love and, finally, another album. Small surprise she sounds less brash than introspective. Sonically, she’s spinning her tellingly detailed narratives in swampier atmospheres heated by producer/co-writer Dexter Green’s electric and baritone guitars, from the stormy title track to the kicky “Methadone Blues” and “Broke Down in London on the M25.” Other highlights: the dreamy “Dharma Gate,” steel-bathed heartbreaker “Tabitha Tuders Mama.”

LAURA MVULA, The Dreaming Room (RCA): 3.5 Stars

The sultry UK songstress twines elements of synth pop, disco and sophisticated piano balladry in this sleekly produced set. “Lucky Man” voices a recurring theme (“Nothing is impossible, love is the only answer that we find”); churchly organ and shimmering harmony arrangements transform simple romance into celestial celebration (“Show Me Love”); and Mvula shows off her reach and soulful elegance with the triumphantly funky “Phenomenal Woman” and “Kiss My Feet.” Electro beats are just flashy dressing for adults who’ve taken a few spins around the dance floor.

JEFF PLANKENHORN, SoulSlide (Lounge Side): 3 Stars

The likes of Joe Ely and Ray Wylie Hubbard have long relied on the Plank’s evocative slide playing, so it’s fitting that his solo debut opens with a flurry of electric licks for the gospel rocker “Lose My Mind.” “Dirty Floor” and the Princely “Born to Win” sound more derivative; more compelling — and more personal — are bluesy anthems “Trouble Find Me” and Jeff Barry’s “Walking in the Sun.” It’s an unpretentiously satisfying set enhanced by fellow Austinites Ruthie Foster, Malford Milligan, Scrappy Jud Newcomb and Fastball’s Miles Zuniga. Plankenhorn’s finally driving, and everyone seems to be enjoying the ride.

MICHAEL MCDERMOTT, Willow Springs (Pauper Sky): 3.5 Stars

The Chicago rocker excels at sketching street-scarred characters — “Soldiers of the Same War,” the dreaming owner of “Getaway Car” — reaching beyond hardship for redemption. The existential darkness of the title track and “These Last Few Days” (“Judas sat in fear while we were sitting here waiting for Godot”) gradually yields to the light of “Butterfly” (“Here’s the thing about hope/ It’s such a delicate rope/ And if you pull too hard you wind up in the dirt”) and “Shadow in the Window.” Like Springsteen, to whom he’s often compared, McDermott’s impassioned tales reveal a man with much to say.



ELI PAPERBOY REED, My Way Home (Yep Roc): 4 Stars

Listeners can be forgiven for initially wondering if they’ve cued up vintage Stax. Mentored by R&B veteran Mitty Collier at her Chicago church, Reed’s tramped across the Delta, and keenly studied gospel vocal dynamics and ’60s-era soul sonics and grit. Other than the funked-up chestnut “Cut Ya Down,” these tracks are his, and it’s musically exciting to hear his guitar-ignited gospel-soul fusion. Should attract Leon Bridges and Jake La Botz fans. At the Bootleg in LA tonight.


Soulrocker (Concord/Fantasy): 3.5 Stars

In 2001, Franti’s “Stay Human” blasted police brutality, media bias, corrupt electioneering and the death penalty with righteously inspired wordplay and strong, genre-blending songs. We need that Franti. Now. Tough luck. His verbal swordplay’s been dulled by “Love Will Find a Way” platitudes. Which Franti made the schizo — and mistitled — “Soulrocker”? Both. “Good to Be Alive Today” and “Once a Day” extend his longtime message of spiritual positivity, and the beachy “My Favorite Wine is Tequila” exerts honest rhythmic pull. But cheesy electropop (“Crazy for You,” “Do You Feel the Way That I Do?”) dilutes any urgency from this magnetic live performer. “Still Standing” seems a vow to survive commercial marginalization: “Next train comin’ my way I’m gonna jump on it…/ I don’t care what anybody say/ ’Cause I’m still standing today.”

SARAH JAROSZ, Undercurrent (Sugar Hill): 3.5 Stars

Three years after relocating to New York, the acclaimed instrumental/songwriting prodigy and New England Conservatory of Music grad is playing at least as much guitar as (octave) mandolin and nosing around folk-pop realms. Her bluegrass roots flavor but don’t define rhythmically enticing tracks like “Comin’ Undone” and the metaphoric “Lost Dog” (“Home’s not a word you say/ Something made you stray”); other highlights include striking minor-key single “House of Mercy” and “Everything to Hide.” At the Troubadour in West Hollywood Thursday, June 16.

DANIEL ROMANO, Mosey (New West): 3 Stars

Should anyone plead the case that Canadian trend-bucker Romano occupies his own creative zip code, “Mosey” offers persuasive evidence. Romano composed 11 of 12 tracks (and played all instruments), which stylishly skew pop after last year’s honky-tonking “If I’ve Only One Time Askin’”; the fun wordplay and romping beat of “Toulouse” (with Rachel McAdams cooing in French) is followed by quasi-psychedelia (“Hunger is a Dream You Die In”), cinematic orchestration (“Mr. E. Me”) and poetic piano balladry (“One Hundred Regrets Avenue”). Surface-accessible music that rewards deeper listening.



FANTASTIC NEGRITO, The Last Days of Oakland 

(Blackball Universe): 3.5 STARS

“The seeds were planted long ago/ Let’s watch the tree grow”: Poverty, racism and police brutality remain survival challenges for “the new Oakland” representing society at large in Xavier Dphrepaulezz’s urgent salvo. Between falsetto and screams, he melds stomping blues, gospel hymning, soul balladry and rock aggression, often in one song. “In the Pines” upturns the traditional ballad against church piano (“Black girl, black girl, your man is gone … You raised that child all by yourself, then the policeman shot him down”), while slide guitar, organ and relentless drumbeats underscore the pleas of “Working Poor” (“Keep on knocking but I can’t get in”). The music moves; the message burns.

9BACH, Anian (Real World): 3 STARS

Themes of oppression, environmental devastation and natural order delivered in Welsh, the lyrical darkness belied by the music’s ethereal beauty. Lisa Jên’s soprano pulses with feeling as piano, hammered dulcimer and percussion convey the drama of the last male white rhino (“Yr Olaf”), feral Russian dog boy Ivan Mishukov (“Ifan”), slave trade (haunting “Si Hwi Hwi”) and threats to Welsh culture (“Heno”). Conceptually rich though not easily accessible; the ambitious sextet’s music’s complemented by a second disc of animated English readings by Peter Gabriel, Rhys Ifans, more.

WILLIAM BELL, This is Where I Live (Stax/Concord): 4 STARS

The soul veteran is in full, limber voice throughout this satisfying set, from ruefully expressive opener “Three of Me” through the gospel-hued “People Want to Go Home.” Co-producer/co-writer John Leventhal brings warmth and polish that stays just this side of slick. Highlights include a guitar-heated remake of Bell’s ’60s classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” that exchanges threat for weary resignation; touching pledge “I Will Take Care of You”; and wise lament “More Rooms,” a choice piece amidst consistently fine songwriting. 

ROB BAIRD, Wrong Side of the River (Hard Luck): 3.5 STARS

From the opening licks of she-done-me-wrong rocker “Ain’t Nobody Got a Hold on Me,” this Memphis-raised Austinite hits the gas and takes listeners on a thoughtful ride. Revealing turns of phrase (“Ain’t nothin’ like a gun in a jealous hand”) ride atmospheric swells of pedal steel and cracking drums as Baird spins out melodic stories of truth-seeking characters, positioning himself somewhere between the roadhouse and church. Highlights: the urgent title track, achingly lovely “Horses” and “Cowboy Cliché” (“All my skeletons got names”).



MILES DAVIS & ROBERT GLASPER, Everything’s Beautiful: The Recordings of Miles Davis Reimagined (Columbia): 3.5 Stars

An ambitious trip through the notorious jazz trailblazer’s Columbia vaults, on what would have been his 90th birthday. Glasper, no stranger to pushing envelopes, guides an intrepid A-Team (Bilal, Illa J, KING, Ledisi, Phonte, John Scofield, Stevie Wonder) as they sample, twist and embellish bits of Davis recordings. Layers reveal themselves gradually; should appeal to Glasper’s “Black Radio” fans. Highlights: Erykah Badu’s slinky “Maiysha (So Long),” Laura Mvula’s jazzily reverential “Silence is the Way,” Hiatus Kaiyote’s otherworldly “Little Church.”

MICHAEL KIWANUKA, Love & Hate (Interscope): 3 Stars

Like the British songwriter’s widely applauded 2012 debut “Home Again,” this Inflo- and Danger Mouse-produced set’s steeped in soul; Marvin Gaye’s spirit glides inside Kiwanuka’s yearning, sensual melodies amid orchestrated swells of organ, guitar, strings and echoing background vocals. Swooping oohs ornament the 10-minute “Cold Little Heart”; not until halfway through does Kiwanuka voice his conflict (“Did you ever fight it? All of the pain/ So much pride running through my veins”). Throughout, he compellingly rotates between tension (magnetic single “Black Man in a White World”) and cathartic release (the title track’s self-affirming “You can’t break me down”).

BONNIE BISHOP, Ain’t Who I Was (Thirty Tigers): 3.5 Stars

It’s surely no accident that opening track “Mercy” drips with grooving, sultry warmth like Bonnie Raitt’s late 1970s recordings. Raitt’s last two albums have been lit up by Bishop-penned tracks (including “Not Cause I Wanted To,” receiving prayerful treatment here). That’s shined well-deserved light on the raspy-voiced Texan’s old-school soul, here magnified by longtime organist Jimmy Wallace and producer/guitarist Dave Cobb. Surprisingly, excepting the Motown-dipped “Too Late” and spiritual “Done Died,” these 10 songs (six co-written by Bishop) don’t rock like her 2012 EP “Free.” Bishop delivers her uplifting messages with sober conviction rather than giddy celebration.

LEYLA MCCALLA, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey 

(Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi): 3 Stars

A cellist by training who started adapting traditional Creole fiddle styles to cello after leaving New York for New Orleans, McCalla’s second album finds her bowing cello behind Cajun fiddle and triangle on tracks like “Les Plats Sonts Tous Mis Sur La Table.” She also plays guitar and tenor banjo, more natural partners to the Cajun, folk and Haitian tunes she mingles with 1920s-style jazz (like the sprightly “Far From Your Web”) in simple, handsome arrangements. Guests include guitarist Marc Ribot and former Carolina Chocolate Drops mate Rhiannon Giddens.



FOY VANCE, The Wild Swan (Gingerbread Man): 4 STARS

Now signed to Ed Sheeran’s label, the romantic Irish troubadour’s third studio album follows last year’s splendid “Live at Bangor Abbey” with a soul-steeped set of rowdy rockers (the guitar- and saxophone-driven “Noam Chomsky is a Soft Revolution,” “Casanova,” the Van Morrison-vibed “Upbeat Feelgood”) and heart-grabbing ballads (“Bangor Town,” (“Be Like You Belong,” the harmonium-gilded, Yeats-inspired title track). Recorded in Nashville with Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King, the polished arrangements thankfully don’t buff the grit off Vance’s gutsy roar, which may entice Chris Stapleton fans. When he offers the gospel-infused “Burden” (“Come to me, my brother, and I will sit with you a while”), it’s a persuasive invitation.


HARD WORKING AMERICANS, Rest in Chaos (Melvin): 3.5 STARS

After having fun with other artists’ songs on their well-received 2014 debut, the jammy roots-rockers take serious aim at hypocrites, gossips and profiteers with a dozen originals and Guy Clark and Jedd Hughes’ sober “The High Price of Inspiration.” Happily, wiseass frontman Todd Snider, Ryan Adams/Chris Robinson guitarist Neal Casals, Great American Taxi keyboardist Chad Staehly, lap steel player Jesse Aycock and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools and drummer Duane Trucks avoid taking themselves too seriously. Highlights: “Something Else” (“If peace made money we’d have it made by now”), “Half Ass Moses,” “Dope is Dope.”


THE SOUL OF JOHN BLACK, Early in the Moanin’ (SJB): 3 STARS

Assuming his bluesman alter ago, Fishbone alum John Bigham returns with a platter of snappy funk (“Crooked Leg”), tastefully played blues (the slow-grooving “Chicago Blues,” “Thursday Morning,” “I Wish I Was Making Love”), and more gently rhythmic ballads that hold the biggest surprises. Closing with the vaguely psychedelic “Early Riser” and soothing instrumental “Sunset Drive,” both built on prettily fingerpicked acoustic guitar melodies over drum loops, he exalts the hopeful mood that pervades this pleasant if not earthshaking set.


THE MIKE ELDRED TRIO, Baptist Town (Great Western): 3.5 STARS

Eldred’s a limited vocalist but as guitarist and frontman he can burn the house down live. He’s backed by Blasters bassist John Bazz and drummer Jerry Angel, plus guests like Robert Cray, David Hidalgo and John Mayer who animate his songs and themes — poverty, racism, faith — as he explores the story of blues legend Robert Johnson and the Mississippi town where he died. Highlights: gospel stomper “Somebody Been Runnin’,” “Sugar Shake,” a rumbling cover of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Should appeal to Blasters and Paladins fans.



THE GREYHOUNDS, Change of Pace (Ardent): 4 stars

Given the Austin duo’s affinity for vintage soul/R&B a la Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers, not to mention their tenure with J.J. Grey, small wonder that keyboardist/singer Anthony Farrell and Andrew Trube display such a greasy feel for rhythmic sweet spots. That propels lyrical pleas for togetherness like “Walls” (“Break down the walls that we put between each other”) and the slyly provocative “Late Night Slice,” and pointed political commentary in “Before BP” (“The ass and the elephant/ Have become irrelevant”), while “It’s So Good to Be Alive” summarizes the album’s joyful, deep-grooving spirit.

ASHLEY SHADOW, Ashley Shadow (Felte): 3 stars

Having sung with Bonnie Prince Billy and the Cave Singers, Ashley Webber (professionally known as Ashley Shadow) establishes indie-folk cred with her full-length debut, produced by Black Mountain drummer Josh Wells. “Another Day” and “Tired” (“Slowing down to a speed where I can’t win/ Checking out to try to try again”) kick up the tempo and complement her penetrating quaver with swaths of echo and processing, but her tone’s mostly introspective, floating over synths and broody electric guitars. Tracks like “Tonight” and the slow-building “In Shadows” will likely appeal to PJ Harvey and Mazzy Starr fans.

DAVID PRITCHARD, Among the Missing (Morphic Resonance): 3 stars

Melodic compositions, clean playing and simple, pretty arrangements add up to a dreamy alternative for fans of acoustic guitar instrumentals. Pritchard, who’s shifted from the jazz-fusion work of his early career to more classically influenced pieces, incorporates cello, viola da gamba and light percussion into half of these 12 tracks, but his contemplative fretwork sets the tone throughout. At Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena Friday, April 29.

CHA WA, Funk ‘N’ Feathers (UPT): 3.5 stars

Mardi Gras Indian street funk whose boisterous chants and polyrhythms evoke the Wild Tchoupitoulas, among other New Orleans forebears, ably led by Big Chief Irving “Honey” Banister (familiar to “Treme” viewers) and Spyboy J’wan Boudreaux (grandson of revered Big Chief Monk Boudreaux). Produced by Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman, the ensemble’s full-length debut enjoyably juxtaposes traditional cuts like opening rally “Injuns, Here They Come” and “Jock-a-Mo” with a “Li’l Liza Jane” spiced with lap steel and sousaphone, “Ooh Na Nay” drenched in the psychedelic soul of Stephen Malinowski’s organ, and the historic call “Shallow Water” reimagined as a churning rocker.



JONAH SMITH, Easy Prey (Music Road): 4 Stars

Soulful pop that should appeal to fans of Amos Lee, Marc Cohn and Diane Birch. Smith’s sophisticated writing and arranging compel repeat listens to catchy tracks like Rhodes-dappled opener “Sunnyville,” grooving rocker “Turn Down the Moon,” “Try Your Best,” the gospel-flavored “Robin, Robin” and R&B plea “Drop Me a Line,” electrified by guest guitarists David Hidalgo and Adam Levy. Those not inconsiderable pleasures just enhance the “America’s Got Talent” semi-finalist’s gritty, thrillingly expressive voice. A compelling live performer, Smith plays Mrs. Fish in Downtown LA Saturday, April 23, ahead of the album’s May 16 drop date.

LIGHTS, Midnight Machines (Warner Bros.): 3.5 Stars

Canadian songwriter Valerie Poxleitner, aka electro-pop artist Lights, revisits six songs from 2014’s “Little Machines,” presenting them in simpler, more spacious arrangements. Tracks like the nostalgic “Running With Boys” and “Muscle Memory” consequently sound less jumpy and anthemic, and Poxleitner’s poetic lyric images make more lingering impressions. “Follow You Down,” one of two new tracks, also worms its way into memory with a dreamy melody played by acoustic guitar and cello. Liberated from heavy production, Poxleitner’s thoughtful songcraft shines throughout.

BEN WATT, Fever Dream (Unmade Road): 4 Stars

Listening to the Everything But the Girl veteran’s rewarding third solo album’s akin to conversing with an empathetic friend whose experiences mirror yours, if you’re wrestling with relationship quandaries while caretaking for parents as well as children. Fear of not achieving enough’s eloquently expressed on the dreamlike “Gradually,” “Winter’s Eve” (“Still so much I want to do”) and “Faces of My Friends” (“We fall through the world like flakes of snow/ Each one is unique above and below”). Bernard Butler’s vivid guitar work illuminates the space around Watt’s vocals — a defining fire-and-chill dynamic. Sometimes Watt’s incisive lyrical elegance outweighs his pop melodies, but Butler’s soundscapes compensate beautifully.

THE BATTURE BOYS, Muddy Water (self-released): 3 Stars

A low-key EP from roots-rocking veterans Tommy Malone (the Subdudes) and Ray Ganucheau (Continental Drifters). BP’s 2010 Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina inform “Deep Water Horizon,” with its references to struggling fishermen and “falling pelicans,” and “The Mighty Flood” (“People tryin’ to come on back but it’s so damn hard/ Makin’ peace with a broken levee in your backyard”), while the death of Subdudes bassist Johnny Ray Allen inspired the moving “Send the Bones Back Home.” Grooves are easier than Malone’s solo or Subdudes work, but the soul runs deep.



STURGILL SIMPSON, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic): 3.5 STARS

Opening with cacophonous sound that breaks into the stairstep piano notes introducing “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” the native Kentuckian once again demonstrates his creative and intellectual independence — and ambition — as he takes listeners on a conceptual journey through the steel-washed tenderness of “Breakers Roar,” funky grooves buffeting the philosophical “Keep It Between the Lines,” his perceptive reading of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and the furious “Call to Arms.” He’s inescapably country — with a voice so eerily reminiscent of Waylon Jennings, there’s no way he couldn’t be — but the whatever-works honesty of Laur Joamets’ savage guitar, Dan Dugmore’s pedal steel, Bobby Emmett’s soulful keyboard, the Dap-Kings’ Stax-style horns and occasional bagpipe and cello trumps genre limitations.

TASHA TAYLOR, Honey for the Biscuit (Ruf): 3.5 STARS

A fun soul-blues foray from the daughter of late Stax great Johnnie Taylor, who’s no slouch either as a vocalist, songwriter or producer throughout this set smartly arranged with horns, sparkling guitars and lush backup vocals. Tommy Castro, Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Randolph make choice contributions, but the wise humor and sass that make tracks like “Leave That Dog Alone,” “Little Miss Suzie,” “Weatherman” and the sweet “Family Tree” so enjoyable are Taylor’s alone. Recommended for fans of Johnnie Taylor and Janiva Magness.

SAM BEAM AND JESCA HOOP, Love Letter for Fire (SubPop): 4 STARS

Beam and Hoop’s inspired collaboration is, as expected, more ruminative than rocking, though the percussive “Midas Tongue” and the spikier “Chalk It Up to Chi” kick up the tempo. The gorgeous melodies of “One Way to Pray,” “Know the Wild That Wants You” and “Soft Place to Land” better exemplify the album, the sophisticated guitar-piano arrangements adorned with cello and violin. Vocally, her spark brightens his shadow, as the two cradle each other in ear-pleasing harmony.

THE HEAVY, Hurt & the Merciless (Bad Son): 3 STARS

The ’60s soul-loving UK quartet return from a four-year leave like lean, mean SEALs, advancing their attack with “Since You Been Gone,” a rocker both aggressive and melodic. Frontman Kelvin Swaby reins in his gritty swagger for the confessional “Nobody’s Hero,” but the set mostly channels post-breakup angst and rage (“What Happened to the Love?” the freaky “Miss California,” “Mean Ol’ Man”) with guitars and horns blasting. Vintage Trouble drink from similar streams of inspiration, but these Brits haven’t buffed their edges. At Coachella in Indio April 17 and 24.




It’s been nearly five years since the Grammy-winning vocalist’s “Back to Love,” which may account for the sense of gratitude and redemption warming this return, recorded mostly in Nashville with guests including Gary Clark Jr., Vince Gill and the Hamiltones. Gospel grounds Hamilton’s R&B, whether he’s invoking Calvary (“Still”) or unabashedly adoring — not objectifying — women (the joyous single “Amen,” “Take You Home”), with synths and electronic beats contemporizing the sound. The album’s appeal lies in old-school satisfactions: smartly crafted, emotionally honest songs delivered with conviction by a richly expressive singer. Other highlights: “Save Me,” “Ain’t No Shame.”

JANIVA MAGNESS, Love Wins Again (Blue Elan): 3.5 STARS

The multiple Blues Music Award winner shifts gears with the buoyantly grooving, handclapping title anthem that sets the tone for this emotional set — which kicks ass, thanks to producer Dave Darling and road-seasoned players who shift from soul to Americana to pop without dropping a beat. Magness’ formidable interpretive skills are in peak form. She often restrains her throaty vocal power, deploying her upper register to convey greater vulnerability on tracks like Darling’s “Just Another Lesson” and “Doorway,” a wrenching ode to forgiveness. Other highlights: “Real Slow” (evoking Darling’s band Boxing Gandhis), the righteously funky “Your House is Burnin’.”


Call It What It Is (Stax/Concord): 3.5 STARS

Reunited with his Innocent Criminals, the conscientious rocker gets topical with the title track’s recitation of “Trayvon Martin/ Ezell Ford/ Michael Brown/ and so many more/ …call it what it is/ murder.” The ominous blues guitar and groove make it an absorbing listen, but the most affecting and memorable tracks are the simplest: “Dance Like Fire” (“Takes a lifetime to find yourself/ A split second to be lost”) and the gospel-y, slide-graced “All That Has Grown.”

MARGO PRICE, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man): 4 STARS

“When I rolled out of town on the unpaved road/ I was $57 from being broke”: Opening with those revealing lines of “Hands of Time,” the East Nashvillean comfortably balances hard honky-tonk with ’60s-style country soul. Her tough vocal style — honed over a decade of singing traditional folk and R&B — serves her sharp wit and lyrics well, particularly “This Town Gets Around” (“It’s not who you know, it’s who you blow that’ll put you in the show”). Recommended for Brandy Clark, Loretta Lynn and Sturgill Simpson fans. Highlights: the stomping “Tennessee Song,” “Four Years of Chances.”



CHARLES BRADLEY, Changes (Dunham/Daptone): 4 Stars

Opening with a spoken-word ode to America might seem unusual, but the soul veteran’s well-documented troubled past and gruff delivery cut the sweetness with hard reality, and effectively set up a set of songs expressing gratitude and hope. As usual with Bradley and Daptone, the production values and horn charts are gratifyingly true to James Brown’s template, although Bradley exchanges braggadoccio for romantic sincerity and yearning. The title track’s reinvention of Black Sabbath’s tune showcases his interpretive conviction, while “Ain’t It a Sin” and “Slow Love” bring the funk and bedroom fun.

THE SINGER AND THE SONGWRITER, Ballads for Trying Times (self-released): 3.5 Stars

The duo’s low-key EP lives up to its name, with Thu Tran’s tight, folk-jazz guitar patterns illuminating melodies warmed by Rachel Garcia’s smoky vocals. Bass and occasionally accordion, cello and violin pad arrangements, but spacious simplicity suits Garcia and Tran’s melodic compositions. Their economically composed songs address challenges and spirit-boosting moments of an artist’s life (“Do what you love nights and weekends/ In empty bars to scattered applause”), with smart commentary on social attitudes. Recommended for Norah Jones and Tracey Thorn fans.

LEE HARVEY OSMOND, Beautiful Scars (Latent): 3.5 Stars

“I’ve gotta keep on working I can’t afford a fight,” growls Canadian folk-rocker Tom Wilson on opener “Loser Without Your Love,” before a magnetic guitar riff and drum groove turn the song surreal. “I’m still in love with the girl you used to be/ A little Jesus walking on your endless sea.” Best known as one-third of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Wilson as psychedelic Osmond imagines ghosts (the Latin-tinged “Blue Moon Drive”) and lovers witchy and lost (“Planet Love,” the Prine-like “Bottom of Our Love”). Produced by Cowboy Junkies bandleader Michael Timmins, it’s a vibey, compelling recording textured with vibraphone and pedal steel.

DJ SUN, Qingxi (Soular): 3.5 Stars

The popular Houston DJ (and Houston Press Music Hall of Famer) known for melding instrumental trip-hop, jazz and soul traces an ancestor’s mid-19th-century journey as an indentured servant from South China to Suriname. Liner notes chronicle those travels and Sun’s own encounters with Chinese terrain, landmarks, historians and rituals. “Bee Keeper” is fittingly serene and “Macau” rides a funky groove, but “Chaos: War” never transcends its chill format to convey strife. Tracks suggest Sun’s sense of wonder but, like his quest, nothing fully resolves.



THE WALKER FAMILY, Panola County Spirit (Daptone): 4 STARS

A cappella gospel singing of sublime order from Como, Mississippi. Patriarch Raymond (who once turned down Mississippi Fred McDowell’s invitation to tour because he’d have to sing blues) and wife Joella are joined by children Alberta, Bobby, Delouse, Patricia and Robert, whose contrasting vocal textures and interpretive conviction raise chillbumps during group-sung tracks like “Chilly Jordan,” “Sweet Home” and the guitar-accompanied “He Didn’t Have to Wake Me.” Joella’s deeply soulful “Had My Chance” offers equally stunning testimony to the inherent musicality of the human voice. Recommended for fans of McDowell’s “Amazing Grace.”

GAVIN JAMES, Bitter Pill (Believe/Capitol): 2.5 STARS

The Dublin troubadour reprises almost all the songs from 2014’s sweet “Live at Whelans,” whose acoustic simplicity — just James and his guitar — complemented earnest confessions like “Nervous.” These band arrangements wisely showcase James’ soaringly expressive tenor, but pumped-up production sucks away all the air. The grand romantic contours of “Coming Home” adapt well to piano, harmonies and drums, but skittish beats undercut “I Don’t Know Why” and hammer “Say Hello.” A sparse cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” demonstrates that open space to connect with a lyric is all the gimmickry James needs. At the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood Thursday, March 17.

JOHNNY RAWLS, Tiger in a Cage (Catfood): 2.5 STARS

The Blues Music Award-winning singer/guitarist kicks off with the topical title track (“Learned a hard lesson in the college of crime/ 19 years old doing hard time”) before easing into smoothly upbeat songs like his saucy duet with Eden Brent, “Southern Honey,” and a nostalgic reprise of his 2008 song “Red Cadillac.” More moments like his slowed intro to Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party,” showing off his substantial vocal finesse, would be welcome. Uneven but enjoyable. At Arcadia Blues Club in Arcadia Saturday, March 19.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Southern Family (Low Country/Elektra): 4 STARS

Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb’s much anticipated concept album exalts bedrock virtues of Southern heritage — not Confederate flags and segregation, but families working together to survive and heal. More obviously it celebrates a community that’s diversifying Americana and reconnecting country to its working-class roots. Among the blue-ribbon likes of Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert and Rich Robinson, Chris and Morgane Stapleton stand out with their steamy redo of “You Are My Sunshine,” as do Zac Brown’s endearing “Grandma’s Garden,” Brandy Clark’s “I Cried” and Anderson East’s horn-infused remembrance “Learning.”



ESPERANZA SPALDING, Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord): 3.5 STARS

The Grammy-winning jazz iconoclast unleashes an alter ego, and the girl can rock. Spalding, who helmed this meaty set with David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, wastes no time with feel-good pop (although the sweetly smooth “Unconditional Love” flirts with it); this is Art with a capital “A.” Joni Mitchell’s an obvious touchstone, compositionally and vocally. Spalding glides across shifting time signatures, her light, limber soprano and bass playing evoking Mitchell’s sophisticated mid-’70s progressions, particularly during standout track “Noble Nobles.” Taken on their own terms, Spalding’s less-hummable songs likewise impress in scope and forward-looking curiosity. At the Belasco Theatre in downtown LA March 15.

JULIE RHODES, Bound to Meet the Devil (indie): 3 STARS

Supported and mentored by singer-songwriters Dan Blakeslee and especially Jonah Tolchin, who plays guitar and co-produces, New Englander Rhodes commands attention with a gritty wail that alternately recalls Beth Hart, Etta James and Valerie June. Her songs are similarly eclectic, grooving without sacrificing melody, in the style of old-school soul/R&B. Contributions from steel master Greg Leisz, organist Spooner Oldham and violinist Sara Watkins add polish, but from bluesy opener “In Your Garden” through gospel rocker “Faith” to hidden stomper “Key Won’t Unlock My Door,” this is Rhodes’ announcement of arrival.

LOS HACHEROS, Bambulaye (Chulo/Daptone): 4 STARS

The Brooklyn quintet’s sophomore release was intended to make listeners respond with their feet, and it meets that goal almost immediately. Opening with the elegant strains of Eddie Venegas’ violin and Itai Kriss’ flute, the title track swiftly leaps into an irresistible mambo groove that never loses its joie de vivre, even as subsequent tracks roll through bomba, salsa and son montuno rhythms behind claves, congas, Cuban tres guitar and Papote Jimenez’s soulful vocals. Highlights: title track, “Esta Noche Corazón,” “Descarga Para Abe.”

THE WESTIES, Six on the Out (indie): 4 STARS

Some writers pen short stories; Michael McDermott’s a hard-luck troubadour, slinging tales brimming with bruised poetry, cinematic atmosphere, colorfully named characters and his impassioned singing over rootsy instrumentation and rocking beats. Fate and gravity play their roles as McDermott sets them up neat as a Springsteen or Chandler classic (“Once upon a time I lived a life of crime/ I burned everything and anyone I could find…/ Once upon a time you were mine”). Musicianship breathes life into these songs, but McDermott’s writing’s their blood. Highlights: “Pauper’s Sky,” “Parolee,” the sensual “Like You Used To.”



BIRDS OF CHICAGO, Real Midnight (Five Head): HHHH

The last album recorded at Joe Henry’s Garfield House studio in South Pasadena was this moody beauty, made with husband and wife JT Nero and ex-Po’ Girl Allison Russell. Nero’s previous bands (JT and the Clouds, Capital Sun Rays) were elevated by his compositional chops, even more formidable here in range and harmonic complexity; Henry proves an astute producer. Russell brings hope and sultry passion to his existential poetry, and hearing their voices wrap around each other on the a cappella “Pelicans” is sweet, healing balm. Highlights: “Remember Wild Horses,” “Color of Love,” gospel-y “Time and Times.”


LAKE STREET DIVE, Side Pony (Nonesuch): HHH½I

Succulent vocals and bouncy, knowing arrangements are a trademark of this conservatory-schooled Boston quartet; what surprises here is their turn into ’60s-evoking soul and R&B. Credit white-hot producer Dave Cobb with keeping some earth in the grooves (and growling guitars in the mix) while buffing LSD’s performance finesse. This isn’t sweaty, late-night soul — it’s more Motown than Stax — but the cheery spirit of tracks like “Call Off Your Dogs” and the title boast (“I rock the side pony”) is infectious. At the Wiltern in LA Friday, Feb. 26.


BONNIE RAITT, Dig in Deep (Redwing): HHHH

Raitt’s way far from losing her groove, as her recent sizzling Grammy performance attested. Her 20th album further testifies that the slide-wielding rock veteran remains a sublimely eloquent mapper of twisty roads and detours taken in relationships. Like 2012’s “Slipstream,” it considers mortality — what the sum of your years says about choices made — but Raitt and her funky road band bring tougher rhythmic muscle and zest, especially to her road-hugging “Gypsy in Me” and sly redos of INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and Los Lobos’ “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes.” The emotional meat’s in Bonnie Bishop’s aching “Undone” and Raitt’s piano confessional “The Ones We Couldn’t Be.” Her voice carries more grit and the songs deeper layers, making this an album to savor over time.


THE CAVE SINGERS, Banshee (indie): HHH

The Seattle folk-rock trio’s fifth, fan-funded album impresses first with its relaxed immediacy, a likely byproduct of being recorded live over a week. Tracks like “Strip Mine” and “Cool Criminal” turn up surprising dynamics while working symbolic imagery and insistent electric guitar riffs over midtempo rhythms. “Who’s Well,” “The Swimmer” and the bopping “Christmas Night” break that rhythmic sameness; more such interruptions would be welcome, but the prevailing sense of friendly familiarity appeals. At Bootleg Theater in LA Saturday, Feb. 27.



BEPPE GAMBETTA & TONY MCMANUS, Round Trip (Borealis): 3.5 Stars

Italy’s Gambetta and Scotland’s McManus waste no time demonstrating why they’re among the world’s foremost acoustic guitarists, opening with a brisk run through Peter Ostroushko’s “Bonnie Mulligan’s” and playing syncopated runs in tandem before easing into Gordon Duncan’s beautifully dreamy “Sleeping Tune.” Thereafter they shift moods and tempos, embroidering leads while sounding out percussive bass lines. Gambetta sings a couple of folk songs that are nice but annoying because they interrupt the uncommonly satisfying conversation between the two guitars. Gambetta plays Caltech Saturday, Feb. 20.

RIHANNA, Anti (Roc Nation): 4 Stars

Rihanna’s a pop culture fixture known more for attitudinal image than art; an emotional cipher whose songs create more distance than connection. Music’s often seemed like a disposable tool calculated to market her brand. Here she’s cool but not icy, complicatedly human and relatable; at the bar after-hours instead of the dance floor. “This whiskey got me feeling pretty/ So pardon me if I ain’t polite,” she sings on “Higher,” pushing her thin voice and dropping her polished veneer. “Love on the Brain” surprises with old-school soul flavor, though she’s habitually restrained. For once, she doesn’t sound like she’s playing games. Highlights: dreamy “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” “Yeah, I Said It.”

SNARKY PUPPY, Family Dinner, Volume Two (GroundUP): 3.5 Stars

The fusion collective again flashes sterling musical cred and imagination in this stirring collaboration with guests including Afro-Peruvian diva Susana Baca, Charlie Hunter, Afro-pop legend Salif Keita (whose “Soro [Afriki]” is a polyrhythmic highlight), electronic duo Knower, Laura Mvula, chanteuse Becca Stevens and Swedish folk band Väsen. R&B crooner Chris Turner and a horn section infuse “Liquid Love” with soul and groove, while David Crosby brings humorous wisdom and elegant guitar solos to “Somebody Home.” Project benefits New Orleans education program Roots of Music.

LUTHER DICKINSON, Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook), 

Vol. I & II (New West): 4 Stars

A slide- and soul-oozing folk-blues-gospel primer that few are as well positioned by experience and heritage to set down as Dickinson, North Mississippi Allstars co-founder and son of legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. Guests including J.J. Grey, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jason Isbell and Mavis Staples help Dickinson celebrate the rich canon that’s been his musical bedrock throughout 21 original, acoustic tracks that sound earthy as Mississippi dirt. Tradition is alive. Highlights: the organ-sanctified “Let It Roll,” “Ain’t No Grave,” “And It Hurts.”



THE RECORD COMPANY, Give It Back to You (Concord): 4 Stars

The LA-based trio continue testing possibilities of their three-piece format, swapping instruments and augmenting their guitar-bass-drums core with Dobro, harmonica, lap and pedal steel. “Off the Ground” opens with Alex Stiff riffing on bass with a slide, one of several flourishes giving this set its earthy, Stonesy feel; Chris Vos’ everyman vocal’s boosted by handclaps on “Hard Day Coming Down,” no less rocking for its gospel-y overtones. Other highlights: the harmonica-bass-drums rocker “On the Move,” the bluesy stomp of “Feels So Good.” At the EchoPlex in Echo Park Friday, Feb. 12.

THE SUFFERS, The Suffers (self-released): 3½ Stars

“Gulf Coast soul” from a worthy 10-piece Houston ensemble that won 11 Houston Press Music Awards last year, including Best Soul/Funk/R&B Act. Frontwoman Kam Franklin shares some tonal similarity to blues powerhouse Shemekia Copeland, but exercises greater restraint, resulting in more ear-seducing dynamics as the ensemble’s horns, organ and harmonies ebb and swell in tandem with her pleas (“Slow It Down”) and sweet thanksgivings (the reggae-infused “Good Day”). Opening for Lake Street Dive at the Wiltern in LA Feb. 26.

MICK RHODES & THE HARD EIGHT, Paradise City (Hot Tramp): 3 Stars

The Inland Empire veteran gathers a posse of friends familiar to Southland audiences, including keyboardist/producer Wyman Reese, country-rocker Rick Shea and Fishbone trombonist John McKnight, for a meat-and-potatoes set of what was once deemed “heartland rock.” Rhodes’ Petty-esque vocal style’s best complemented by the old-school rock ‘n’ roll of “Since You,” “Last Summer” and “Whisky Girl” (“Everyone’s a cynic and the phone bill’s on the stove/ There’s something so pathetic about doing this when we’re so old”). Rhodes showcases solo at Matt Denny’s in Arcadia Tuesday, Feb. 16.

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE, Another Black Hole (Gypsy Eyes): 3 Stars

The acclaimed North Carolina singer-songwriter’s irascible as always, but his 14th studio album leavens the sad with the sweet via rootsy arrangements and striking imagery. His gravelly voice is backed by players attuned to his loamy music’s philosophical depths, including ex-Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, percussionist Future Man, bassist Dave Roe and swampy guitarist Tony Joe White. Highlights: the grooving “Don’t Play Around,” “Papermill Man” and “Heidelberg Blues,” where he adopts the voice of a Nazi soldier (“I’m told to do a demon’s work/ and bear the cross of fate/ My God in heav’n judge my curse”).



LUCINDA WILLIAMS, The Ghosts of Highway 20 

(Highway 20/Thirty Tigers): 3 Stars

Williams’ second double album in two years spurs jolts of emotional recognition as she sings of mortality and characters met and imagined along the titular Southern road. Her voice — slurry, stripped and bruised — is sonically cosseted by guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, who magnify her poetry’s alluring melancholy through angsty rock, sweet country-folk, waltz tempos and gospel grooves. A deep collection that inspires prolonged listening. Highlights: “Doors of Heaven,” “I Know All About It” (“You’ve been living on the jazz side of life/ Carrying your pain in your back pocket and a sharp edge knife”), “Can’t Close the Door on Love,” a tangy ode to mature love’s zest, and a take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” ignited by Frisell’s solos.

THE JAMES HUNTER SIX, Hold On! (Daptone): 4 Stars

Hunter clearly studied at the school of James Brown, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, but the grittily ebullient UK singer channels rather than mimics stylistic heroes and persuasively connects when he pleads (“[Baby] Hold On,” “Free Your Mind”) or turns contemplative (“Something’s Calling”). Arrangements and performances hold true to early-’60s R&B, from the attack of guitar and horn solos to the drums’ tough crispness. Album packaging likewise nails retro style (note Daptone’s mono-recording stamp on the cover). Happily, while Hunter and crew haven’t reinvented anything here, the fun they’re having’s infectious.

SIDESTEPPER, Supernatural Love (RealWorld): 3.5 Stars

British producer Richard Blair’s dance-music ensemble spices its Colombian-electro approach with more acoustic instrumentation and jubilant vocals, making this a more invitingly musical excursion than 2008’s “Buena Vibra Sound System.” “Song for the Sinner” and “Hear the Rain Come” sound pretty but are overly earnest; more engaging are “Magangué,” “Lover” and “La Flor y la Voz,” which match acoustic percussion with call-and-response playfulness and minimally processed effects. Other highlights: “On the Line,” “Come See Us Play.”

THE PINES, Above the Prairie (Red House): 3 Stars

Atmospheric guitars and rich imagery conjure ghost-kissed prairie landscapes where brothers Alex and Benson Ramsey (sons of fret magician Bo Ramsey, who co-produced) and David Huckfelt stage windswept dramas like “There in Spirit” (“It’s so hard to work the garden with your fingers keeping score/ Be the driftwood of a love that’s holding to the shore”). “Here” features a friend-and-family chorus of Ramsey, Greg Brown, Iris DeMent and Pieta Brown; “Time Dreams” ponders spirit over beautifully fingerpicked guitar and John Trudell’s haunting spoken word.



MARLON WILLIAMS, Marlon Williams (Dead Oceans): 3 Stars

Interesting debut from a 25-year-old Kiwi artist sparking buzz with his stage charisma, surreal videos and brooding screen presence. Influenced by The Band and Gram Parsons, he works quirky country corners with songs like the creepy “Strange Things,” “When I Was a Young Girl” and “Hello Miss Lonesome” (“Like King in his castle and Beggar on the street/ Miss Lonesome’s in the eyes of almost everyone you meet”). He fares best with slower tunes that allow his dark poetry to penetrate and his classically trained, melancholy tones to shimmer; think Nick Cave meets Chris Isaak. At Bootleg Bar in LA Wednesday, Feb. 3.

BAABA MAAL, The Traveller (Palm): 4 Stars

Recorded in Dakar and London, the Senegalese star’s 11th album is sonically defined by golden guitar tones and electronic elements — reverb, loops, delays, pulsing beats — that amplify the dynamic acoustic exchanges between Maal and fellow guitarist Kalifa Baldi. “Fulani Rock” offers stomping rounds of drums and electric guitars, with Maal’s digitally channeled vocal ecstatically fronting the instrumental jubilee. “Kalaajo,” “Lampenda” and the title track better represent the rest of this satisfying set, with kora, ngoni and choral voices backing Maal’s celebratory singing and those beautiful guitars.

TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND, Let Me Get By (Concord/Fantasy): 4 Stars

TTB’s first album since bandleader/producer Derek Trucks wrapped his 15-year tenure with the Allman Brothers finds the refocused collective stretching out in jams that naturally salt old-school soul and rock ‘n’ roll with funk, blues and jazz. With 12 members — bass, keyboard, two drums, three horns, three backup singers, plus Tedeschi and Trucks on vocals and guitars — conditions are ripe for an overplayed clusterfuck. But even during Trucks’ two-minute slide solo closing “Laugh About It,” horns shine, dancing around his scorching notes and Tedeschi’s bluesy vocalizations; “I Want More” features a crescendoing guitar-flute duet. It’s exciting to hear a band this musically fluent and creatively vital.

CHARLES LLOYD & THE MARVELS, I Long to See You (Blue Note): 3 1/2 Stars

The 77-year-old saxophonist’s legendary musical curiosity makes way for contemplation here, as he opens with a rhythmically deliberate reworking of “Masters of War” that keys into Dylan’s dramatic urgency while also suggesting mournful resignation. Lloyd, boundary-pushing guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel poet Greg Leisz burnish traditional melodies (“La Llorona,” “Shenandoah”) with similar grace, and elegantly trace harmonic contours of Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” shadowed by Norah Jones’ sultry guest vocal, with tasteful support from longtime bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. Low-key loveliness.



AOIFE O’DONOVAN, In the Magic Hour (Yep Roc): 4 Stars

O’Donovan’s silvery soprano, which gilded Crooked Still’s eclectic string tunes and earned her plum opportunities like filling in for Amy Helm in Ollabelle and opening Glen Hansard’s recent tour, remains the key lure on her second solo album. But she’s also blossomed as a songwriter. From the nostalgic pop of “Magic Hour” to the melancholy “Donal Óg,” inspired by her grandfather’s death, the poetic material gives her voice a broad, emotional canvas on which to paint. Highlights: “Stanley Park,” “Not the Leaving,” “Porch Light” (“If I were to let you go/ How far you’d fall I’ll never know”).

MARK HUFF, Down River (Exodus Empire): 3 1/2 Stars

The brooding atmosphere and rock ‘n’ roll underpinnings of this EP may appeal to fans of Colin Linden and the late Duane Jarvis, as should the expressive guitar playing by the Vegas-raised, Nashville-based Huff, co-producer Mark Robinson and Black Crowes/Trigger Hippy axeman Audley Freed, which almost compensates for Huff’s limited vocal range. With its Petty-ish mix of reverberant guitars and Jen Gunderman’s organ, the strongest of the six tracks is opener “Just Before the Fade”; another highlight is the hooky “Sweeter Then.”

MAIA SHARP, The Dash Between the Dates (eOne): 3 1/2 Stars

Sharp’s sixth album delivers more smartly crafted adult pop of the sort that’s inspired the Dixie Chicks, Keb’ Mo’ and Bonnie Raitt, among others, to record her songs. The melodies are hummable, the grooves sensual, and lyrics address mature love and self-exploration. With harmonious support from Arnold McCuller, Dave Stewart and Lizz Wright, and Sharp’s light voice is backed by top-shelf musicians gifted at subtlety, including drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Greg Leisz. Highlights: “Underneath,” “Poison Well,” “Phoenix,” the Raitt-covered “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.”

HANK WILLIAMS JR., It’s About Time (Big Machine/Nash Icon): 3 Stars

Time hasn’t humbled Bocephus, as evidenced by “Dress Like an Icon” and “God and Guns” (“That’s what this country/ Was founded on”). Over roadhouse piano, ballsy guitars and Julian Raymond’s glossy production he namechecks his parents and mentors on “It’s About Time,” throws down a brawny cover of Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge,” and stirs memories of hits past with the good-time anthem “The Party’s On.” Guests Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert, Justin Moore and Brad Paisley buff Williams’ DGAF cred, while the McCrary Sisters invest “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in Jesus” with more righteous dignity than it deserves.



LEO JAMES CONROY, Leo James Conroy (Black Treacle): 3.5 Stars

The promising British singer-songwriter’s emotive tenor occasionally evokes Antony Hegarty and Jeff Buckley over guitar, piano and trumpet. Of the five brooding songs, the prettily fingerpicked “Pull Down Two” and “I Only Pray When I’m Desperate” make the strongest impression: “They say that I should look at the big picture/ But I’m not so very good with cryptic clues/ So, Lord, when I begin to open up to you/ Well, I’d like it if you would do so too.” At Hotel Café in Hollywood Jan. 14 and 21.


THE WOOD BROTHERS, Paradise (Honey Jar): 3 Stars

Reteamed in their recently adopted hometown of Nashville, brothers Chris and Oliver Wood — of Medeski Martin & Wood and Tinsley Ellis/King Johnson fame, respectively — dig into American roots idioms for 10 subtly sophisticated tunes co-written with drummer Jano Rix. It’s most compelling when their workmanlike vocals are harmonically buffed by guests: Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks (the lightly funky “Never and Always”) and sisters Ann and Regina McCrary (“River of Sin”). At the El Rey in LA Thursday, Jan. 21.


NIKKI HILL, Heavy Hearts Hard Fists (Deep Fryed): 2.5 Stars

Not for nothing has the New Orleans chanteuse been nicknamed “Southern Fireball”; her tough, smoldering vocals instantly pin back ears and command attention, like a younger Etta James with thinner tone. She and husband Matt Hill’s boogeying band make a potent combo. If only she had lyrics worthy of that voice, instead of standard “gonna love you” fare. Next time. Highlights: “And I Wonder,” “Nothin’ With You,” “Struttin’.”


DENNY LILE, Hear the Bang: The Life and Music of Denny Lile 

(Big Legal Mess): 3.5 Stars

Some consider Lile a “failed” artist; before he died at 44 in 1995, a sad victim of alcoholism and a crippling lack of self-confidence, his only real business success was Waylon Jennings scoring a hit with his song “Fallin’ Out.” But this loving resurrection of Lile’s lone, 1972 album demonstrates that, creatively, he was no failure. His thoughtfully crafted, melodic country-folk ballads endure; the recording sounds of its time yet relatable, thanks to Lile’s lyrical honesty and vocal warmth. It’s easy to imagine “Love is on a Freight Train,” “Meet Me By the River” or the title track performed by Gram Parsons or Poco, or contemporary acts like Andrew Combs. The accompanying documentary’s overlong but illuminates the Louisville scene from which Lile emerged — and a time when live music was commonplace.



BRIAN WRIGHT, Café Rooster Sessions Vol. 1 (self-released): 3 Stars


Recorded at the ex-Angeleno’s Nashville home, this modest acoustic set should please fans hungry for new material since 2013’s “Rattle Their Chains.” Wright resurrects “60 MPH (Junk Queen),” which was a show staple with his band Waco Tragedies, strips down “Radar” (from 2006’s “Dog Ears”) and demonstrates his knack for philosophical, fleetly fingerpicked story songs with the history-traversing “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” and Townes Van Zandt-esqe “Talkin Nashville Co-write Blues” (“It ain’t about what you sold it’s about what you said”). It’s brief, but showcases Wright’s strength: songwriting.



Following last year’s “In the Beginning,” which also featured previously unreleased recordings of the jazz great, Resonance is issuing this six-track set from a 1959 Indianapolis Jazz Club show featuring pianist Eddie Higgins, onetime Ahmad Jamal drummer Walter Perkins and an unknown bassist. The material includes selections from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter, and a “Stompin’ at the Savoy” with more snap than stomp. Montgomery’s playing is a model of cleanly economic exploration, particularly during Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darling,” but mostly his fretwork braids in harmonic counterpoint with Higgins’ tasteful keyboard runs.,

LAURENCE JONES, What’s It Gonna Be (Ruf): 3.5 Stars 


On his third album, the twentysomething British Blues Award winner (for Young Artist) turns in a glossy cover of Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” (featuring singer/actress Dana Fuchs) and a satisfying stomp through Lead Belly’s “Good Morning Blues.” The tough-voiced Jones’ songs aren’t as memorable, beyond insistent rocker “What’s It Gonna Be” and “Don’t Look Back,” a Bryan Adams-esque pop duet with Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom. But his guitar playing’s commandingly impressive, explaining why he’s been championed by Walter Trout and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and suggesting more promising returns ahead if he has less derivative material.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Blues Harp Women (Ruf): 3 Stars 


A worthy 31-track collection spotlighting various styles of harmonica playing as well as different approaches to blues by primarily regional artists; Annie Raines (best known for her duo with Paul Rishell) and the late Big Mama Thornton (represented by the instrumental “Down Home Shakedown”) are the best-known. Singing ranges from uninspired to slickly professional to earthily genuine. But the harp performances spark with heat, and this shines welcome light on underappreciated members of the blues community.,



GOSPELBEACH, Pacific Surf Line (Alive Naturalsound): 3 Stars

Anchored by Beachwood Sparks alums Brent Rademaker and Tom Sanford, Ryan Adams/Chris Robinson guitarist Neal Casal and Watson Twins sidemen Kip Boardman and Jason Soda, with Brian Wilson percussionist Nelson Bragg guesting, GospelbeacH’s smartly arranged, guitar-twanging pop-rock’s as easygoing as you’d expect from an ensemble with that Gram- and Grateful Dead-loving pedigree. First-rate musicianship and a palpable spirit of brotherhood give wings to free-spirited tracks like “Sunshine Skyway” and “Mick Jones.” At Bootleg Theatre in LA Friday, Dec. 18.

JIM LAUDERDALE, Soul Searching, Vol. 1 Memphis/ Vol. 2 Nashville (Sky Crunch): 4 Stars

The Grammy-winning Americana showman’s robust, soulful tones have long suggested he had an R&B album in him, and he’s finally made one. Two, actually. Co-produced by Luther Dickinson, the melodic songs are consistently strong, although the Memphis set’s more sonically cohesive, with horn and harmony arrangements evocative of ’70s-era Stax. The Nashville set skews psychedelic as Lauderdale contemplates big-picture questions (“Signals From Space,” “Why Does God Let That Happen”) and real-world problems (“Water Water Please Come Back”). Highlights: the grooving title track, “There’s a Storm Out There (But It’s Calm in Here),” “One Big Company” (“Gotta love it while we learn the art/ Of waitin’ for the tricklin’ down to start”).

BARBARA DENNERLEIN, Christmas Soul (MPS): 3 Stars

Hammond B3 organ’s generally associated with deep soul and blues, but in Dennerlein’s hands it gives an understated twist to a smooth jazz set of holiday standards like a flute-accented “Sleigh Ride” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time” (featuring vocalist Zara McFarlane). The treats are a snappy turn through Miles Davis’ “Blue Christmas” and an unexpected take on “Chim Chim Cherie” from “Mary Poppins.” But its title is misleading; “Christmas Smooth” would have been more accurate.

NEIL FINN + PAUL KELLY, Goin’ Your Way (Omnivore): 4 Stars

Previously only available as an import, this crisply recorded 2013 double-disc concert set from Crowded House frontman Finn and Aussie troubadour Kelly offers old-school pleasures like hooky, hummable melodies, cloud-kissing harmonies and intelligent songcraft. Signature hits like Finn’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the earthier Kelly’s “To Her Door” come to life anew with a polished band featuring Finn’s drummer son Elroy, Kelly’s guitarist nephew Dan and bassist Zoe Hauptmann. By the time they join for Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” it feels like a tender conclusion of a convivial reunion.



ERYKAH BADU, But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown): 4 Stars
“Cel U Lar Device,” the idiosyncratic diva’s slyly winning redo of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” becomes the conceptual platform for 11 tracks utilizing wireless communication glitches as commentary on how humans connect — or, more to the point, fail to — in the 21st century, from the magnetic groove of “Mr. Telephone Man” and “Phone Down” (“You ain’t gonna text no one when you’re with me”) through the R2D2-style blips and squeaks of “Dial’Afreaq” and her seductive duet with ex-partner Andre Benjamin, “Hello.”

PETER COOPER, Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor (Red Beet): 4 Stars
The Nashville music journo turned songwriter’s discerning taste shows in his selections from Taylor’s abundant catalogue, as does his unabashed admiration for how the Texas troubadour spins out wise, intricately layered stories. In comparison to Taylor’s gruff, world-weary vocal style, Cooper brings a sincere ache to his melodic delivery of payoff lines like “If she’d come home, boy, I’d take her back” (“Depot Light”) and “You’ve got these handcuffs much too tight, you know I get like this when the weather’s bad” (“More Storms”). Coupled with acoustic instrumentation from co-producer/guitarist Thomm Jutz and violinist Andrea Zonn, among others, that casts fresh light across Taylor’s material, illuminating its stunning twists and depth. Highlights: “The Great Divide,” “Louis Armstrong’s Broken Heart,” “Prison Movie.”

RUTH B, The Intro (Columbia): 3 Stars
Signed to Columbia by execs impressed that the Vine video darling’s independent release of “Lost Boy” popped up in iTunes’ Top 100, the 20-year-old Edmonton singer-songwriter hews to that piano-and-vocal template throughout this four-track EP. The thread of melancholy stitching the songs together is soothingly affecting, though hopefully she’ll embrace more diverse rhythms and instrumentation on her next project. “Lost Boy” is an original take on Peter Pan’s legend; her perspectives on modern relationships and self-determination (“Superficial Love,” “2 Poor Kids”) are similarly thoughtful.

KIMIÉ MINER, Kimié Miner (Arium): 3 1/2 Stars
Miner and her team take pains to emphasize her Hawaiian-Portuguese heritage, her deep connection to the islands and her reggae and R&B influences — and to be fair, those rhythmic strands do bump through the ear-friendly production. But essentially, this is well-crafted, danceable pop with positive messages. “Fallin’ Again” talks triumph over romantic dejection against a seductive, acoustic-guitar groove; horns underscore the determination of “Shine”; Miner’s warm, nimble tones express hope thoughout “New Day” and simple-joy celebration “Bottom of a Rainbow.” Should appeal to Jack Johnson fans.



ADELE, 25 (XL/Columbia): 3.5 Stars

The sense of discovery that permeated 2011’s record-shattering “21” and fueled the UK songstress’ ascent into international diva-dom is inevitably missing here; Adele Adkins’ dramas are too widely known despite her recent retreat into private life. What’s still present is the undeniable force of a self-aware artist reinforcing her style, from the savvy, chillbump-inducing “Hello” through the catchy Max Martin collaboration “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” reverberating gospel harmonies of “River Lea,” the flamenco-dusted, acoustic “Million Years Ago” and vocal tour de force “All I Ask.” Songwriting’s not as consistent as on “21,” but “25” is about resolution and catharsis — and there’s plenty in the piano-dominated arrangements and Adkins’ aching, untrammeled roar.

TINARIWEN, Live in Paris (Anti): 4 Stars

An enthralling concert from last December, when the Grammy-winning Tuareg ensemble gathered onstage with 75-year-old tindé queen and onetime benefactor Lalla Badi, a galvanizing presence. It’s the first live album for the Saharan rockers (based in Algeria since extremists forced them out of Mali), recorded with sparkling clarity in a city that’s been musical haven; it captures the Bouffes de Nord audience’s rhythmic clapping as clearly as the band’s stormy guitars, urgent percussion and Ibrahim ag Alhabib’s hypnotic vocals. Highlights: “Koudedazamin,” “Imidiwan Ahi Sigidam,” “Tiwayyen,” “Tinde.”

ART PEPPER, Live at Fat Tuesday’s (Elemental): 4 Stars

Recorded in 1981, a year before the alto saxophonist’s death, this previously unissued set (remastered from a collector’s tape) finds Pepper in vigorous form. He leads his agile combo through Thelonious Monk’s frenetic “Rhythm-a-Ning,” Cole Porter and Gordon Jenkins (the broodingly melodic “Goodbye”) plus his own compositions. At 11-and-a-half minutes, “Red Car” is the shortest of five tracks, its grooving jubilance reflecting the creatively dynamic period Pepper enjoyed after decades of addiction-related troubles. Illuminating 39-page liner notes contain Q&As with Pepper and his wife plus producers’ reminiscences. 

LANCE CANALES, The Blessing and the Curse (Music Road): 3.5 Stars

A Fresno janitor by day and gruff-voiced, bluesy troubadour by night, Canales’ material draws on San Joaquin Valley’s working-class environs, its earthiness enhanced by slide guitar and offbeat percussion (peach bucket, shovel, footsteps). A spooky update of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” names previously unknown farmworkers (“Mexican deportees”) killed in a 1948 plane crash; equally compelling are originals like the stomping “Special Made” and “Weary Feet Blues” (“When I jumped that border found hell on the other side/ Promised the picture in my pocket I’d make it out alive”).



BEACH HOUSE, Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop) 3.5 Stars

2015’s been good to the Baltimore duo; their four-night stand at Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre in December is already sold out, and this is the second album they’ve released this year. “Depression Cherry” paired Victoria Legrand’s airy vocals with glassy synths and intermittently anthemic guitars; here Legrand and Alex Scally downshift further, sharpening focus on Scally’s subtly expressive guitar solos for tracks like “She’s So Lovely” and the swoony “Somewhere Tonight.” The two albums are dreamy sonic siblings, but tracks such as “All Your Yeahs,” “Common Girl” and “Elegy to the Void” open “Lucky Stars” with a bit more risk and diversity.

MIKE ZITO & THE WHEEL, Keep Coming Back (Ruf) 3.5 Stars

The Royal Southern Brotherhood guitarist breaks away from customary blues-rock tropes throughout a nicely varied, Trina Shoemaker-produced set showcasing his yearning, gritty vocals and deepening songwriting. The high point is the unsparing — and surprisingly melodic — confession “I Was Drunk” (co-written with and featuring Anders Osborne). Other highlights: the movingly sung R&B lament “Lonely Heart,” “Get Busy Living,” the country-sounding “Early in the Morning” (“Got my first cup of coffee/ Drinkin’ it like jug wine”).

SARA BAREILLES, What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress (Epic/Sony): 3.5 Stars

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter reworks her songs for the musical inspired by 2007’s endearing indie film “Waitress,” her emotionally intelligent lyrics tapping into the titular character’s mindset and anxieties. She also gives lyrical voice to male leads — most effectively, “You Matter to Me,” sung by Jason Mraz. It coheres as a tuneful concept album, and “Waitress” fans should appreciate its humor and humanity. Highlights: “Soft Place to Land,” “I Didn’t Plan It,” “She Used to Be Mine” (“Most days I don’t recognize me/ These shoes and this apron/ That place and its patrons/ Have taken more than I gave them”).

ERIC BIBB & JJ MILTEAU, Lead Belly’s Gold (Stony Plain): 3 Stars

Folk-blues veteran Bibb and French harmonica player Milteau make a sympatico team throughout this timely celebration of folk legend Huddie Ledbetter, mostly recorded live at a Parisian jazz club. Arrangements don’t stray far from Ledbetter’s originals, though they deliver “Midnight Special” with a joyful Cajun cast and “Goodnight, Irene” with real poignancy. Highlights include a swingy take on Ledbetter’s segregation-protesting “Bourgeois Blues,” “When That Train Comes Along/Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (featuring Big Daddy Wilson’s deep gospel harmony) and Bibb’s “Chauffeur Blues,” written from Ledbetter’s POV.



HALF MOON RUN, Sun Leads Me On (Indica): 3.5 stars

The Canadian indie-rockers keep hearts on sleeves even when pumping up the percussion and electronic drums on tracks like “Hands in the Garden” and “Turn Your Love.” But the most effective tracks, like “It Works Itself Out” and the dreamy “Everybody Wants,” build gradually: a distant rumble of percussion layered with acoustic guitar, then swelling keyboard, creating ample space for their melodic dynamics and frontman/guitarist Devon Portielje’s vulnerable-sounding tenor to swoop upward with a boost from harmonies and reverb. At Bootleg Theater in LA Thursday, Nov. 19.

LIONEL LOUEKE, Gaïa (Blue Note): 4 stars

A small audience was present in-studio when the Benin-born, Paris- and Berklee-schooled jazz guitarist recorded his sixth album (produced by label prez Don Was), which may account for the esoteric instrumental recording’s taut presence and spontaneity. Opening with the West African-folk-meets-avant-jazz “Broken,” Loueke, bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth rock the aptly titled “Sleepless Night” before stretching into the expressively pensive soundscapes of “Sources of Love” and acoustic-textured “Rain Wash.” Other highlights include highlife-dappled setpiece “Forgiveness,” the urgent title track and a celebratory spin through the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.”

BILLY GIBBONS, Perfectamundo (Concord): 4 stars

The idiosyncratic ZZ Top guitarist keeps things refreshingly weird on this solo outing. Afro-Cubano rhythms provide the creative springboard, as Gibbons’ instantly recognizable blues-rock guitar solos — and there are plenty of them, which should please fans — snake around Martin Guigui’s slinky keyboard. Some raps sound forced but overall there’s a lighter, freer feel in the production and music, as Gibbons growls through originals like “Pickin’ Up Chicks on Dowling Street” as well as blues chestnuts like Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”

TIM MCGRAW, Damn Country Music (Big Machine): 3 stars

Throughout his superstar career McGraw’s consistently toed the line between art and musical commerce while savvily eyeing which side needs to be wooed, balancing meatier songs by blue-ribbon writers like Chris Stapleton and Bruce Robison with lighter-weight crowd-pleasers. But the song-oriented artist who defied Nashville convention by bringing his touring band into the studio and recording Jason White’s abortion-themed “Red Ragtop” is curiously besotted with drum machines and Edge-style guitar textures here. Given time, the album grows more appealing, but none of the individual melodies or lyrics immediately jumps out until the last track, Lori McKenna’s beautiful “Humble and Kind.”



JUDITH HILL, Back in Time (NPG): 4 stars

Prince co-produced this solo debut for Hill, a former backup singer for John Legend and Stevie Wonder who was introduced to mainstream audiences via “The Voice” and the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” But Hill doesn’t sound like just another Prince protégé, though the Purple One’s influence is evident in the harmony-slathered funk and groove of “Turn Up” and “Wild Tonight.” She digs deep for show-stopping soul anthems “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Angel in the Dark,” and “Beautiful Life,” the jazzy “Love Trip” and the rallying “My People” magnify her focus on uplifting, spirit-embracing music.

THE STEEL WHEELS, Leave Some Things Behind (Big Ring): 3½ stars

An engagingly performed set that develops the Virginia quartet’s distinctive twist on mountain music. Tracks like the lightly funky opener “We’ve Got a Fire” and banjo-rocking “Find Your Mountain” expand beyond their old-time touchstone to explore more varied Americana fields as Dobro, fiddle and close harmonies dance around rustically soulful frontman Trent Wagler. Highlights: “Every Song is a Love Song,” “Old Guitar,” “Help Me” (“It’s shaky ground from where I stand/ This blanket’s made of gravel/ You are water and I am land/ I can’t see which way to travel”). At McCabe’s in Santa Monica Saturday, Nov. 7.

WALTER TROUT, Battle Scars (Mascot): 3½ stars

The veteran blues-rock guitarist reflects upon the road that led him to last year’s liver transplant, from “Almost Gone” (“I wish I could go back and do it over knowing what I know”) and the stormy “Omaha,” which opens with the sound of an approaching ambulance siren (“I need something for the pain/ But I don’t want to get strung out again”), through the searing guitar workout “Cold, Cold Ground” and grateful “Gonna Live Again.” “Please Take Me Home” provides some sweetness midway through this bracing set, but Trout remains a ferocious, from-the-gut player.

KARAVAN SARAI, Woven Landscapes (self-released): 3 stars

A musical travelogue inspired by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Narayan Sijan’s travels throughout Asia, India and the Middle East. Some tracks began as traditional melodies, like “Upon My Own Hand,” which Sijan and producer Carmen Rizzo developed from a Sufi love song, layering Sijan’s oud, saz and setar with Rizzo’s piano, electronic effects and percussion; “Caspian Sea” is a blend of Asian melody, Sijan’s arrangement and a Persian poem. A mellow collaboration named after desert resting places where stories and music were shared along the Silk Road.



JEFFREY FOUCAULT, Salt as Wolves (Blueblade): 4 Stars

The Massachusett’s songwriter’s poetically chiseled songs resemble mini Terence Malick films: thick with natural imagery, meaning, and emotionally charged atmosphere textured by his gruffly expressive baritone, Morphine drummer Billy Conway and electric guitarist Bo Ramsey — the liquid smoke to Foucault’s smoldering lyrical fire. Foucault takes a bluesier turn here, his earthy songs traveling highways, past “goner’d streets/ and dying sunset buildings/ cut with shade,” questioning family, love and faith. Highlights: “Des Moines,” “I Love You (And You Are a Fool),” “Rico” (“He could not afford to see a doctor/ So he died/ I barely knew him/ He was a friend of mine”). At McCabe’s in Santa Monica Friday, Nov. 6.


Live in Athens 1987 (Real World): 4 Stars

Senegalese superstar N’Dour was huge in West Africa but essentially unknown elsewhere when his band opened for Peter Gabriel’s “So” tour. This six-track concert EP, recorded in a Greek amphitheatre, preserves N’Dour’s commanding performance and audience-stirring mix of guitar, saxophone, keyboards and polyrhythms sounded out on talking drum and percussion. It’s a rousing, electric set capped by a 10-and-a-half-minute performance with Gabriel of “In Your Eyes” that reminds how the two altered Western perceptions of “world” music.

DANIEL MARTIN MOORE, Golden Age (SofaBurn/OK): 3½ Stars

The Kentucky singer-songwriter’s fourth solo album, produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is a reflective, melodic set in a tight sonic frame where the slightest piano sustain magnifies arrangement dynamics around his hushed tenor. Highlights include the gorgeous “How It Fades” (“Maybe we can never know these things we love so well/ But the music never leaves/ Dusk and the dawn and the memories”), the title track, “Anyway” and “Our Hearts Will Hover,” which inches toward MMJ turf with its merging of elegantly swinging piano and sky-scraping electric guitar.

BOB FORREST, Survival Songs (Six Degrees): 3½ Stars

The Thelonious Monster punker turned recovery community celebrity’s “first official” solo album opens with a harrowing reading of the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues chestnut “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” that, like the poignant “Cereal Song,” is clearly informed by addiction nightmares. Producer Ian Brennan hones in on Forrest’s candid, flaws-and-all delivery and acoustic guitar, augmenting them occasionally (muted trumpet here, steel and harmony there). “Sammy Hagar Weekend” provides levity; the heavy tracks — “Lena Horne Still Sings ‘Stormy Weather’,” “Not Going to Do It Again,” “Body & Soul” — are riveting.



SON LITTLE, Son Little (Anti): 3½ Stars

There’s no escaping the soul in the nimble vocals of Little, ne Aaron Livingston; his voice persuades listeners to lean in. But rather than build on it, the Philly-raised R&B innovator and sometime Roots collaborator mostly offsets his vocal creaminess with electronic effects, excepting the traditional turn “Lay Down.” His intriguing approach underscores the complicated perspectives he expresses, but the lyrical impact of some songs (“Go Blue Blood Red,” “Nice Dreams”) gets overwhelmed by his shifting sonic palette. Highlights: “Loser Blues,” “The River,” “Your Love Will Blow Me Away When My Heart Aches.”

SMALL BLACK, Best Blues (Jagjaguwar): 3 Stars

Dreamy and synth-driven, the Brooklyn foursome’s third album feels like a loop from the past into the present and back again. Drum machines and Josh Hayden Kolenik’s heavily processed vocals provide a distinct ’80s flavor, which suits reflective tracks like “Big Ideas, Pt. 2” and “Closer I Look,” though it comes across as style divorced from substance with the noisy “Back at Belle’s.” Highlights: “Boys Life,” “No One Wants It to Happen to You.” At the Roxy in West Hollywood Friday, Oct. 23.

GUN OUTFIT, Dream All Over (Paradise of Bachelors): 3 Stars

The LA-based quartet’s fourth album is a psychedelic mash of electric guitars, balalaika, drums, and Dylan Sharp’s Lou Reed-style singing and quasi-philosophical lyrics (“Sow yourself with sadness, befriend your misery”). The Mazzy Starr vibe that slides to the fore during “Angelino” makes it one of the most affecting tracks, though Carrie Keith’s lead vocal sounds curiously disembodied. Sharp’s guitar’s the most expressive element, his tone and reverbed fretwork evoking exotic landscapes and shifting realities. Might appeal to War on Drugs fans.

WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS, Pittsburgh (Nettwerk): 4 Stars

Inspired by his grandmother’s illness and death, the introspective singer-songwriter’s poignant, hushed EP should resonate with anyone who’s cared for a terminally ill loved one. “Sorry it took me two years to come home/ I’ve been so busy, should see how the kids have grown,” from opening track “I Had to Carry Her (Virginia’s Song),” sets the scene and emotional tone. There’s bittersweet balm in the title track’s refrain (“I’ll come for you if you want me to”), while “Matter” processes grief over electronic beats and the cello-dressed “Ghosts of Penn Hills” gracefully acknowledges death’s role in nature’s cycles. At the Troubadour in West Hollywood Saturday, Oct. 24.



KOREY DANE, Young blood (Innovative Leisure): 4 Stars

Dry wit, pop hooks and a hip, literate sensibility distinguish this slyly charming set, for which the Long Beach singer-songwriter teamed with guitarist Aaron Embry, keyboardist Phil Krohnengold, pedal steel shaman Greg Leisz and Aimee Mann producer Tony Berg. Vocally evoking Ryan Adams and Elliot Smith, Dane pivots between catchy romps and dreamy contemplation, from snappy opener “Jules Verne” (“I looked at Virginia with the gap between her teeth/ She reminded me of Jane Birkin, drank cigarettes like steam”) through “The Lion & the Keeper” (“Lazarus lays dead on the stone/ Six words for the paper: ‘Don’t wake me when I’m gone’”). Other highlights: “Let It Be Just for Fun,” “Louisiana Sundance.”

LIZ VICE, There’s a Light (Ramseur): 3½ Stars

R&B/gospel from a Portland, Oregon-based artist who found deep healing in music following a kidney transplant 10 years ago. Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley, wearing a producer’s hat, wraps Vice’s simple, inviting melodies with the analog warmth and instrumental flavors of ’60s-era soul, which suits her hopeful messages and full-toned, quietly impassioned delivery. Highlights of the 11-track set include the slow-grooving “Entrance,” “Empty Me Out,” a funky update of the traditional “Pure Religion,” and a live soundcheck reprise of the title track.

TONY FURTADO, The Bell (YousayFurtado): 3½ Stars

A monster on six-string and slide, the guitarist/banjoist continues to hone his rootsy sound, hauling out his cello-banjo and mixing Celtic-flavored instrumentals (“Astoria”) with acoustic blues (“Iowa”) and bluegrass-infused folk-rock (“Broken Bell”). “Dying Language” wraps social commentary in harmonies and metaphor (“Why is your nose stuck in their bed … Don’t you speak to me/ I can’t take your twisted words of hate”), while the banjo-driven “Tired Lion” and “Star” address his father’s death and son’s birth, respectively. Should gratify longtime fans. At Boulevard Music in Culver City Saturday, Oct. 17.

SAM BUTLER, Raise Your Hands! (Severn): 3 Stars

The Blind Boys of Alabama guitarist vigorously digs into the tune bags of Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Eliza Gilkyson, Curtis Mayfield, Mindy Smith, Bruce Springsteen and U2 for material, blending earthy blues and gospel uplift. The Bee Gees’ “The Lord” just sounds frenetic, but Butler’s treatment of Eric Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord” and Van Morrison’s “Full Force Gale” is reverently moving (and the occasion for fierce and beautiful fretwork), while his reading of Tom Waits’ “Gospel Train” locates the greasy sweet spot between sin and swing.



THE BIRD & THE BEE, Recreational Love (Rostrum): 4 Stars

Frontwoman Inara George and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin follow their 2010 Hall & Oates tribute (“Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1”) with this hummable, danceable pop confection. George’s sultry, precise vocals tease out every elusive drop of emotional depth (“I know I’m ambitious but you’re so delicious/ I wish every day was Sadie Hawkins Day” she sasses on “Runaway”), but with arrangements this delightfully sophisticated it feels churlish to complain about lightweight lyrics. Playing Taste of South Lake fest on Saturday, Oct. 10.

DONNIE FRITTS, Oh My Goodness (Single Lock/Thirty Tigers): 4 Stars

The longtime Kris Kristofferson keyboardist and Muscle Shoals native gets the gold treatment he deserves from John Paul White of the Civil Wars, who produced and wisely keeps arrangements simple, the better to savor Fritts’ weathered baritone, wit and naturally swampy groove. He’s got a nice support team on hand, including longtime buddy Spooner Oldham and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Ben Tanner, but their tasteful contributions just sharpen focus on the earthy, unpretentious soul of songs like the yearning “Temporarily Forever” and “Them Old Love Songs.” Other highlights: “Memphis Women and Chicken,” “Tuscaloosa, 1962.”,

JULIA HOLTER, Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)3½ Stars

Never shy about taking new directions, the LA composer isn’t hesitant to demand listener patience either. Thus, while she turns inward after 2013’s ensemble-oriented “Loud City Song,” her orchestrated pop’s production sometimes undercuts the emotional intimacy of songs like “How Long?” (which sounds like an outtake from a Kurt Weill piece) and the fascinatingly hazy “Vasquez.” Highlights: “Night Song,” where her voice floats around cello accents in a synth-generated mist, and the melodic “Silhouette.” At Hollywood Palladium Thursday, Oct. 8.

KATHY KALLICK BAND, Foxhounds (Live Oak): 3½ Stars

The California bluegrass veteran opens her latest album with a tribute to Bill Monroe: the sprightly title track, which recalls hanging with the Father of Bluegrass on his front porch in the 1980s. It sets the tone for a solid album that reminds that, in addition to being a limber, clear-toned singer, Kallick’s an insightful songwriter. Her tight band includes fiddler Annie Staninec, just named Instrumentalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association; their harmonious duet on Lily Mae Ledford’s “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” is a kicky highlight. At Caltech’s Beckman Institute Auditorium Saturday, Oct. 10.



BLACK VIOLIN, Stereotypes (Universal): 4 Stars

Viola player Wil Baptiste and violinist Kev Sylvester call in rapper Pharoahe Monch, jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper, Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno and Roots MC Black Thought, among others, for their compelling major-label debut. R&B-flavored tracks “Another Chance,” “Magic” and “Losing Control,” featuring Baptiste’s smooth vocals, suggest a reach for pop accessibility — sometimes overreach — but what distinguishes the Florida duo’s genre-mashing is their stirringly dramatic playing, most effectively captured on the title track and “Runnin’.” These guys clearly know their Mozart from their Monk.

BLITZEN TRAPPER, All Across This Land (Vagrant): 4 Stars

After dabbling in hip-hop and drum-machined rhythms for 2013’s “VII,” the Portland quintet’s eighth album circles back around to the rootsier, classic rock-inspired palette of earlier albums like 2011’s “American Goldwing.” Namechecking influences: Dylan (Eric Earley’s nasal tone), James Gang (title track), Grateful Dead (the choogling “Rock and Roll”), Springsteen (the piano-hammered narrative “Cadillac Road”), Poco (the pedal steel-gilded “Love Grow Cold,” “Let the Cards Fall”). But the collective result’s gratifying; they sound like they’ve learned from their heroes, not like they’re imitating them.

MODOU TOURÉ & RAMON GOOSE, The West African Blues 

Project (Arc): 4½ Stars

Melodically rich and handsomely arranged, this collaboration between UK blues guitarist Goose and multilingual Senegalese frontman Touré (son of Touré Kunda vocalist Ousmane Touré) is a delightful addition to the expanding library of West African blues. Touré’s ululating cries and Goose’s watery slide solos complement each other like responsive forces of nature on the evocative “We Walk in the Sahara,” while guest Diabel Cissokho’s kora gracefully shadows sometime bandmate Goose’s acoustic  patterns throughout “The Lighthouse Keeper.” Dancing above the sparkling fretwork and snappy groove of “Waar,” Touré’s limber tenor’s as expressively joyful as “Bring It to Me”-era Sam Cooke.

TURNPIKE TROUBADOURS, Turnpike Troubadours 

(Bossier City): 3½ Stars

This Oklahoma outfit can rock (cue up “The Mercury”), but this is no-bones-about-it country as it’s still played in heartland dancehalls. Kyle Nix’s fiddle and Ryan Engelman’s pedal steel amplify the vivid sense of place conveyed in solidly crafted songs like “Down Here,” “7 Oaks” and “Easton & Main” (“I left my heart in Tulsa on the corner of Easton and Main/ On the Cain’s Ballroom floor soaking up a bourbon stain”), delivered by Evan Felker’s flannel-warm vocals as conversationally as a friendly joe at the bar. At El Rey in LA Wednesday, Oct. 7.



DANIELLE NICOLE, Wolf Den (Concord):  4 Stars

A Best Instrumentalist-Bass Blues Music Award winner, the former Trampled Under Foot frontwoman’s gone solo sans her surname, collaborating with producer/guitarist Anders Osborne, longtime keyboardist Mike “Shinetop” Sedovic and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore on a statement-making debut dripping New Orleans groove grease. It’s fun to hear her stretch out with funk and rock, and when she tears into “Take It All” and especially the throbbing “Just Give Me Tonight,” her soul diva cred’s set. Should attract Janiva Magness and Amy Winehouse fans.

JACKIE GREENE, Back to Birth (Yep Roc): 3 Stars

After lengthy collaborations with Black Crowes, Trigger Hippy, Phil Lesh & Friends, the peripatetic multi-instrumentalist’s solidly crafted, Steve Berlin-produced seventh album finds him considering life’s smaller moments (“I count the miles and I’m feeling incomplete/ I guess the distance makes the closeness oh so sweet”). “Now I Can See for Miles” buoys internal rhymes with pop hooks; harmonica flavors the country-ish “Motorhome”; piano and jubilant chorus take “Hallelujah” to church; the violin-graced “Trust Somebody” and bluesy “Where the Downhearted Go” spike Greene’s even, hopeful tones with emotional urgency.

JEANNE JOLLY, A Place to Run (Ramblewood): 3½ Stars

The former Angeleno’s second full-length album since returning to her native North Carolina is an aural feast of melody and rootsy textures. Props to guitarist/producer Chris Boerner for sympatico, R&B-dappled arrangements that burnish the Americana songstress’s instinct for groove (the earthy “Boundless Love,” “Gypsy Skin”) and powerfully expressive soprano, which spins from the sensual poetry of “Matches and Gasoline” (“Whiskey kisses lit up like fireflies”) to breathy sweetness (“Good Man”) and righteous indignation (“Without You”). Jolly harnesses all that vocal firepower to piercing effect for “California,” which becomes a revelatory symbol for loss and life-transforming change. A gem.

COLIN LINDEN, Rich in Love (Stony Plain): 4 Stars

The veteran guitarist/producer’s handy knack for metaphor (“Knob & Tube”) and character-driven narrative (“Delia”) make his latest album more than mere showcase for his formidable fretwork. “The Hurt” opens with “Etta James scorned the starlet for the way she had been portrayed/ For all the pain that she’d been through she felt that she was betrayed,” then delivers pointed pop culture commentary as Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica and Reese Wynans’ organ wind like disturbed ghosts around Linden’s Delta-drenched solos; elsewhere, Amy Helm’s harmony underscores the truth of “Everybody Ought to Be Loved.” Classy, soulful music-making.




GARY CLARK JR., The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (Warner Bros.): 4 Stars

Fans only familiar with 2012’s smooth, diffuse “Blak and Blu” may get taken to school by the savvy Austin guitarist, who makes a strong personal statement by digging down further into the blues that are his bedrock. Gritty substance and neosoul instincts are twined by deep R&B grooves and tasteful blues licks; the heavy rock “Grinder” gives way naturally to humble acoustic gospel (“Church”), smoldering soul (“Hold On”), restrained funk (“Cold Blooded”) and lusty, old-school rock ‘n’ roll (“Shake”), and solos are less frequent but more bracing. At the Forum in LA Sept. 21-22.

THE REVIVALISTS, Men Amongst Mountains (Wind-Up): 4 Stars

The New Orleans septet’s third full-length’s a gratifying piece of work powered by nimbly precise playing, fresh musical perspectives and strong, original songwriting. With keyboard, pedal steel, saxophone, trumpet and soulful frontman David Shaw augmenting a trad rock lineup, they roll easily from party jams (“Keep Going,” “Move On”) to pretty fingerpicked country (“King of What”), epic ’70s-style bombast (“All in the Family”), and standout tracks “Wish I Knew You” and “Gold to Glass,” which marry NOLA-seasoned funk with yearning balladry. At Teragram Ballroom in downtown LA Thursday, Sept. 17.

GLEN HANSARD, Didn’t He Ramble (Anti): 4 Stars

The scruffy Irish folk-rocker’s recorded prolifically — first with the Frames, then Swell Season (with Markéta Irglová, with whom he won a Best Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly” from “Once”). But this melodic, handsomely arranged set is only his second solo album. Recorded in Chicago, Dublin, France and New York, it’s more Celtic-flavored and acoustically textured than 2012’s “Rhythm and Repose.” The intensity Hansard invests in poetically detailed songs like “McCormack’s Wall” and “My Little Ruin” onstage is gentled in studio, but his commanding baritone bares realms of emotion.

CINCINNATI POPS ORCHESTRA, American Originals: Recorded Live at Music Hall (Fanfare Cincinnati/Naxos): 3½ Stars

John Morris Russell conducts the Cincinnati Pops and a cluster of artists intimately versed in American roots music — Rosanne Cash, Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, Joe Henry, Aoife O’Donovan, Over the Rhine plus the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars — in elegant renderings of Stephen Foster classics, augmented by traditionals like “Amazing Grace” and a string- and djembe-accompanied “Kumbaya.” It’s a stirring celebration of Americana heritage and melody; highlights include Cash’s authoritative delivery of “My Old Kentucky Home,” OTR’s shivery “Hard Times Come Again No More.”



CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT, For One to Love (Mack Avenue): 4 Stars

The stylish chanteuse earned comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan with her Grammy-nominated debut, 2013’s “WomanChild,” and here she astutely cherry-picks the songbooks of Hal David & Burt Bacharach, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Blanche Calloway (the earthy “Growlin’ Dan”), Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (“West Side Story”’s “Something’s Coming,” expanded into a jazzy setpiece). Those reinvented covers bracket poignant originals like “Look at Me” and “Fog” that further underscore the emotional impact of her confidently precise phrasing, shadowed by Aaron Diehl’s sensitive piano work. At Hollywood Bowl Wednesday, Sept. 16. 

BEACH HOUSE, Depression Cherry (Sub Pop): 4 Stars

Back from a breather following 2012’s “Bloom,” Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally recorded their fifth album off the beaten trail in Louisiana, which may have encouraged the Baltimore duo’s embrace of pared-down melodicism. With their glassy surfaces and Legrand’s airy vocals, most tracks have a soothing, transporting effect, though squalling guitar occasionally pierces the narcotic layers, as on “Sparks” and “Beyond Love” (“They take the simple things inside you and put nightmares in your hands”). On “Bluebird,” Legrand’s gently cooed pledge of devotion is rendered more believable by its appealing contrast with tinny, hammered beats behind her; while “PPP” is so dreamy it intoxicates.

LIZZ WRIGHT, Freedom & Surrender (Concord): 3½ Stars

Midtempo grooves dominate Wright’s fifth album, tastefully produced by Larry Klein and warmed by her uncommonly expressive alto. But as she eases from the funky, Toshi Reagon-penned opener “Freedom” through the slow-stoked flames of “Right Where You Are” (a duet with Gregory Porter) and takes the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” to church, the cumulative effect is subtly uplifting. Other highlights: “Somewhere Down the Mystic” (“Everything is hopeless ’til it’s won”), a seductive reading of Nick Drake’s “River Man.” At Largo in LA Thursday, Sept. 17.

MADDIE & TAE, Start Here (Dot): 3 Stars

Maddie Marlow and Taylor Dye dumped Nashville’s bro-country chart-toppers on their collective ear last year with their sly, refreshing single “Girl in a Country Song,” a hooky reminder that real women are more than just bikini-clad hotties. The harmonious duo’s debut album won’t jar commercial sensibilities of country DJs. But the light-hearted, small town spirit and contemporary savvy infusing “Girl,” “Shut Up and Fish,” “Your Side of Town” and “After the Storm Blows Through” should appeal to fans of Kacey Musgraves, Dixie Chicks and TV’s “Nashville.”



KEVIN GORDON, Long Time Gone (Crowville): 4 Stars

Three years after “Gloryland,” whose musical depth and uncompromisingly literate lyrics made it one of this page’s picks for year’s best, the Louisiana-raised artist/songwriter returns with more atmospherically evocative story songs. Gordon fashions poetry from pocket protectors and skid marks over rollicking guitars (“All in the Mystery”); Dobro and slide guitar tattoo swampy grooves coiled beneath “Goodnight Brownie Ford,” “Walking on the Levee” and “Letter to Shreveport” (“Coffee in a tin percolator, dry biscuits on the stove/ Johnny Horton on the radio, you don’t hear that no more”). Rich in conversational detail, these songs pulse with life’s weird rhythms. They stay with you. Other highlights: “Church on Time” (“Preacher drive a Lincoln, deacon drive a Ford”), the surreal, jazzy “Cajun With a K.”

THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE, Tales From the Land of 

Milk and Honey (FEM): 3 Stars

Rapper/singer/executive producer Phonte shares the mic (and co-writing credits) with vocalists Carmen Rodgers, Tamisha Waden, Carlitta Durand and Shana Tucker, whose sultry harmonies and solos boost the soul quotient considerably, and Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson, who co-produces the North Carolina collective’s fifth album with multi-instrumentalist Nicolay. The latter’s production instincts remain suave and unpredictable, with house and even light funk stirred into FE’s signature R&B-jazz blend. It’s a smooth cocktail. Highlights: “Disappear,” “Face in the Reflection.”


Sky (Bloodshot): 3½ Stars

From opening riffs of “Willow,” the unconventional R&B veteran’s a blast of garage-punk energy, plugged in between the Ramones and Wilson Pickett, yowling “I’m a Full Grown Man” and snarling “I’m a simple man/ Been wretched since time began” during “Adjunct Street.” Well-named Savages guitarist Peter Greenberg and baritone saxophonist Tom Quartulli match Whitfield’s unbridled energy. Picking out influences — the Morphine-meets-Howlin’ Wolf flavor of “The Wolf Pack,” the rockabilly driving “I’m a Good Man” — reminds how once, rock was meant to roll.

2-BIT PALOMINO, Things I Dream About (Howlin’ Dog): 3 Stars

This Houston country-folk crew clearly prizes meaningful songcraft. Sturdy compositions like the poignant “Wait,” wry “No Casting Calls,” the title track and compelling “No More Havana” benefit from vocal-centered, mostly acoustic arrangements that showcase their harmonies and intelligent lyrics that value emotion over sentiment. “At the Fais Do Do” may get two-steppers moving, but the ballads shine brightest. Should appeal to fans of Nanci Griffith and Desert Rose Band. Playing at Throop Unitarian Hall in Pasadena on Saturday, Sept. 5.



DAVID RAMIREZ, Fables (Thirty Tigers):  4 Stars

The road-seasoned Austinite returns with 10 appealingly spare tracks of romantic introspection and simple, engaging melodies. Produced by Noah Gundersen, they’re punctuated with occasional dramatic crescendos (“How Do You Get ’Em Back,” the rocking “Hold On”), but Ramirez usually needs little more than guitar and his roughly expressive baritone to affectingly convey his intimate stories. A keeper. Highlights: “On Your Side,” “Rock and Hard Place,” “Ball and Chain” (“Be careful with your hobbies/ They may define you one day”). Recommended for fans of Gundersen and Glen Hansard.

VINTAGE TROUBLE, 1 Hopeful Rd. (Blue Note): 3 Stars

After the stomping, slide-driven “Run Like the River,” fans of this dynamo LA quartet’s sweat-soaked concerts may be chagrined by the midtempo balladry dominating their sleek sophomore album. Frontman Ty Taylor impassioned, Technicolor tenor could make phone books sound like Romeo’s poetry, so hearing his pleading falsetto and arpeggiated vocal fillips animate old-style plaints “From My Arms,” “Shows What You Know” and “Another Man’s Words” doubles frustration with the blandly pleasant material. As it is, VT’s mates nod toward prime influences — the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding — but their performance lightning resists studio bottling.

FAIRGROUND SAINTS, Fairground Saints (Verve): 3½ Stars

The fresh-voiced LA trio’s country-leaning pop filters influences from Nickel Creek to classic rock (check out the central riff of “Can’t Control the Weather” back to back with the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music”), yet individual personality emerges intact. Props to producer Matthew Wilder for not smothering their cheery instrumentation (Dobro, fiddle, acoustic and electric guitars) or the sweet harmonies between Elijah Edwards, Megan McAllister and Mason Van Valin. Should appeal to fans of Delta Rae and Nickel Creek. At McCabe’s in Santa Monica Friday, Aug. 28.

INDRA RIOS-MOORE, Heartland (Impulse!/Verve): 4 Stars

The sassy take on “Little Black Train” belies its traditional origins — a fitting opener for this unexpected gem produced by Larry Klein and featuring a small international combo, including Rios-Moore’s saxophonist hubby Benjamin Traerup, whose bluesy resonance complements her smooth, gliding tones like smoke blown across silk. A dreamy interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Azure” is followed by a grooving, lyric-focused reinvention of Pink Floyd’s “Money”; a similarly deliberate transformation of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Heroes” is bracketed by slinky treatment of the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train” and Doc Watson’s prayer-like “Your Long Journey.” Beautiful. RIYL Melody Gardot and Billie Holiday.



NOAH GUNDERSEN, Carry the Ghost (Dualtone): 4 Stars

The 25-year-old Seattle troubadour’s follow-up to 2014’s wise “Ledges” is a vulnerable thing of beauty that ponders love, belief and existence over heart-tugging melodies. Even while confessing “I Need a Woman,” Gundersen sings with hushed intensity, his gentle fingerpicking boosted by intermittent swells of piano, cello and violin —  until the howling “Heartbreaker” toward album’s end. Then the scathing stock-taking of earlier tracks (“Show Me the Light,” “Selfish Art”) explodes into unsettlingly raw need, before offering the wary plea of “Planted Seeds”: “Talk to me/ In languages we’d like to speak/ In the alphabet of planted seeds/ With the hope for what will grow.”

DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER, Dee Dee’s Feathers (OKeh/Sony Masterworks): 4 Stars

The Grammy- and Tony-winning jazz chanteuse teams with bandleader Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for a jubilant celebration of New Orleans — its heritage, culture and resilience — on Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary. From an elegant reading of the Satchmo-associated “What a Wonderful World” through the Dr. John-assisted “Big Chief,” deep-swinging “Saint James Infirmary,” second-line-rocking “Treme Song/Do Whatcha Wanna” and big band-style “Whoopin’ Blues,” it’s a triumph of musicianship. At the Grammy Museum in downtown LA Tuesday.

MIKE FLANIGIN, The Drifter (Black Betty): 4 Stars

Revered by peers for his performance chops and soulful feel, Flanigin’s years playing organ with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and ZZ Top inform this stellar solo set’s refreshing variety. Opening with the hip soul-jazz of “The Devil Beats His Wife,” he teams with fellow Texans Gary Clark Jr., Kat Edmonson, Alejandro Escovedo, Billy Gibbons and Jimmie Vaughan for a smartly arranged, 10-track journey through punk, deep grooving blues, after-hours jazz, smooth soul, gospel, sweet pop and a lush string instrumental. It all flows together naturally — a measure of Flanigin’s innate talent and taste.

ANDERSON EAST, Delilah (Low Country/Elektra): 4 Stars

Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, East’s album, the first on producer Dave Cobb’s Low Country imprint, is a juicy tease that ends too soon. They nail the sound of ’60s Southern soul and R&B, with Stax-evoking horns, gospel-y organs and Motown-style harmonies complementing the Alabama native’s grittily combustible performance. “Devil in Me” works the sweet spot between country and soul in the shadows of Charlie Rich and Otis Redding; dial back decades, and it’s no stretch imagining the righteously churning “Satisfy Me,” “Quit You” (co-written with Chris Stapleton) or “Lonely” as
AM radio staples.



GALACTIC, Into the Deep (Mascot): 3½ Stars

The New Orleans funk-jazz veterans launch this exuberant celebration with the horn-blasting “Sugar Doosie” and aptly titled “Higher and Higher,” the latter benefitting from J.J. Grey’s gritty vocals. He’s one of a veritable second-line parade of friends here: Brushy One String, Macy Gray, Mavis Staples, and David Shaw and Maggie Koerner (who front the hip-hop-dappled “Dolla Diva”). Funky instrumentals “Long Live the Borgne” and “Today’s Blues” cook with the warmth and feel of ’70s funk and soul-jazz — making clear that, while help from friends is sweet, it’s Galactic’s musicianship and spirit propelling this booty-rocking beat fest.

JON CLEARY, GoGo Juice (FHQ/Thirty Tigers): 4 Stars

On Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary, with triumphant sounds streaming out of the Crescent City, veteran NOLA keyboardist Cleary follows his splendid 2012 Allen Toussaint tribute “Occapella” with this wittily sophisticated gem. “Boneyard” and “Bringing Back the Home” hit hips and knees with earthy funk, while Cleary seduces with keyboard-rippling ballads like “Step Into My Life” (“I burned my bridges, I liked it that way/ ’Til I found your footprints on my privates and/ I don’t know what to say”). Recommended for fans of the Meters, Bonnie Raitt and Toussaint (who created most of the horn arrangements).

LIANNE LA HAVAS, Blood (Nonesuch): 4 Stars

The soulful Londoner’s tasty sophomore album retains some folk flavor from 2012’s “Is Your Love Big Enough?” but mostly as seasoning for 10 songs rolling in more pronounced R&B grooves. Lyrically, she digs into her personal and Greek-Jamaican family history with a mix of innocence and worldliness on tracks like “Ghost,” “Good Goodbye,” the hip-swinging “What You Don’t Do” and “Green & Gold” (“I’m looking at life unfold/ Dreaming of the green and gold/ Just like the ancient stone/ Every sunrise I know/ Those eyes you gave to me/ They let me see where I come from”).

JIMMY LAFAVE, The Night Tribe (Music Road): 3½ Stars

One of Austin’s favorite troubadours, LaFave dedicates his latest outing to the after-hours “Kerouac people,” waitresses, truckers, late-night radio hosts, insomniacs, beatniks, poets and music lovers who have long swooned to his distinctive, grit-and-gold vocals and also people his lyrics. They dance through the rich melodies of ballads like the title track and “Talk to an Angel,” and barroom rockers like “Dust Bowl Okies.” The killer track is his contemplative reading of Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.” At Levitt Pavilion Saturday.



ALEX CUBA, Healer (Caracol): 3½ Stars

The Latin Grammy-winning Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter’s latest alluringly blends Cuban rhythms and sunny, easy-on-the-ears pop, from strummy opener “Vale Todo” through the open-hearted “No Esperes Más,” which finds him trading sweet nothings with Anya Marina (“Underneath the stars all the world is ours and ours alone”). Cuba’s warm croon and acoustic fretwork beautify “Contigo,” while “In 1 2 3 4” with David Myles feels like a sexy dance on the beach; Ron Sexsmith and Alejandra Ribera also guest. Cuba opens for Sheryl Crow at Hollywood Bowl Friday and Saturday.

WARREN HAYNES, Ashes & Dust (Concord): 4 Stars

For his third solo album, the prolific Allman Brothers/Govt Mule guitarist unexpectedly teams with rootsy New Jersey ensemble Railroad Earth — a rewarding pairing. It’s enlightening to hear Haynes sensitively channel his intensity into music acoustically textured with banjo, bouzouki, fiddle, mandolin, National steel and slide guitar, with emphasis shifted to compositional storytelling rather than fiery guitar solos. He covers personally meaningful songs like Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” (an album highlight) and Stevie Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” (featuring Grace Potter); more satisfying are the melancholy “New Year’s Eve” and “Hallelujah Boulevard,” originals that show a seasoned, well-decorated artist still challenging himself.

TOTÓ LA MOMPOSINA, Tambolero (RealWorld): 4 Stars 

Internationally renowned Colombian singer/dancer Momposina’s much-sampled 1993 classic “La Candela Viva” gets remastered and expanded with alternate takes, new bass-boosted mixes, previously unreleased tracks and different sequencing, overseen by co-producer and son-in-law John Hollis. The result: a 12-track set that’s leaner, more viscerally dramatic and percussive, renamed to honor Momposina’s longtime tambore player Paulino Batata Salgado. “A nation without music would be a people without identity,” Momposina writes in the extensive, photo-laden liner notes; the whole informative package pays worthy tribute to the polyrhythmic ancestral music she’s devoted her career to preserving.

IRIS DEMENT, The Trackless Woods (FlariElla): 4 Stars

Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s work was the unusual prompt for DeMent’s return to the studio. The reclusive songwriter’s folk melodies draw out rolling cadences in Akhmatova’s elegant writing, whose often political themes earned her Stalin’s enmity, lifelong poverty and an enduring legacy as one of Russia’s most beloved writers. DeMent kicks up her heels with a country band for a few tracks, but mostly this thoughtful, touching labor of love revives Akhmatova’s richly imagistic poems with piano and DeMent’s emotionally attuned singing. Highlights: “Listening to Singing,” “And This You Call Work.” 



FANTASTIC NEGRITO, Deluxe EP (Blackball Universe): 4 Stars

Oakland artist Xavier Dphrepaulezz’s unpredictable alter ego draws on a deeply rhythmic foundation of blues, funk and spirituals to bounce universal messages of hardship, redemption and common humanity. Those relatable if heavy themes take a while to sink in, though; attention’s first grabbed by his growly wildman vocals and grooving instrumentation — organ, piano, killer slide guitar, slamming drums — that speaks to hips and feet. Definitely an artist to watch. Highlights: “She Don’t Cry No More,” the magnetic “A New Beginning.”

JILL SCOTT, Woman (Atlantic): 4 Stars

At the heart of the Grammy-winning songstress’ fifth, lushly produced album is a knockout interpretation of ’60s soulman Jerry Ragovy’s “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love” that emotionally anchors the entire set. Elsewhere she quotes Curtis Mayfield (the funky kiss-off “Closure”) and Elton John (“Prepared”); for most of the 16 tracks, she relies on co-writers and -producers. As usual, Scott serves a full, satisfying platter of soul, R&B, spoken word, hip-hop beats (though not as many this go-’round) and a multidimensional persona not shy about speaking her mind or sharing heartache, of which there’s plenty.

DANIEL ROMANO, If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ (New West): 4 Stars

Throughout 11 tracks awash in guitars, fiddle, pedal steel and romantic yearning, not one song is filler or casually phrased. Native Canadian Romano’s vocals are tonally reminiscent of Texas-reared labelmate Robert Ellis and Robbie Fulks — two other Americana heroes gifted at melodic, melancholy songcraft. Highlights: “Old Fires Die,” “If You Go Your Way (I’ll Go Blind),” “Strange Faces” (“If I had a drink of water clean enough to cleanse the years/ I would drown to learn a lesson taught somewhere beyond my ears”).

HERE SHE COMES NOW: WOMEN IN MUSIC WHO HAVE CHANGED OUR LIVES edited by Jeff Gordinier and Marc Weingarten (Rare Bird Books): 4 Stars

Personal, engaging essays by poets, screenwriters, food writers, novelists and producers about their relationship with the music of Björk, Mary J. Blige, Kate Bush, Aretha Franklin, PJ Harvey, Stevie Nicks, Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Taylor Swift and Tina Turner, among others. Phyllis Grant’s working-mom take on Madonna and Miley Cyrus is hilarious; Bart Blasengame thoughtfully recounts how Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” awakened his sensitivity to women’s needs; Jennifer Nix poignantly depicts how June Carter Cash’s music winds through family memories; Dael Orlandersmith’s chapter on Patti Smith and racial politics offers provocative food for thought. Worth reading.



AMY HELM, Didn’t It Rain (eOne):  3 Stars

Best known for singing with Ollabelle and dad Levon’s Midnight Ramble band, Helm’s deeply soulful, earthy-sweet tones nimbly embody the nexus of gospel, soul, blues and country throughout her eclectic solo debut. Sympathetically produced by Ollabelle bassist Byron Isaacs, who co-wrote most of the 12 tracks with Helm, the album’s an uplifting, beautifully arranged blend of rocked-up gospel anthems (the title track, Sam Cooke’s “Good News”), roadhouse stompers (“Heat Lightning”) and grooving, heart-gripping ballads (“Roll Away,” “Sing to Me”) that seed its emotional ground. Should appeal to fans of Ollabelle, Bonnie Raitt, Patty Griffin.

DUCKTAILS, St. Catherine (Domino): 3½ Stars

Under his nom de musique Ducktails, Matt Mondanile and producer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck) craft gently escapist soundscapes, with dreamy synths and guitars chiming together like sun dappling on water. It’s an open yet oddly intimate sound, one that places Mondanile’s earnest vocals somewhere behind the spinning keyboard melodies and programmed beats, as if to suggest no ego will disrupt the soothing illusion. Highlights: “Headbanging in the Mirror,” “Reprise,” title track. At the Getty Center in LA Friday.

ELENI MANDELL, Dark Lights Up (Yep Roc): 3½ Stars

Another set of intelligent pop from an artist who’s made a career of dancing to her own idiosyncratic drumbeat. On her 10th album she immediately embraces that mindset with “I’m Old Fashioned” (“I like to sit and read a magazine/ I like to talk to my friends on the telephone/ Plugged into the wall”), over a winsome melody embellished by guitar and trumpet. That theme of simplicity and connection threads together 12 elegantly composed and arranged songs. Highlights: “China Garden Buffet,” “Magic Pair of Shoes,” “Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown.” 

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Muddy Waters 100 (Raisin’ Music): 4 Stars

Chicago blues icon Muddy Waters receives a rousing, spiritually and musically honest tribute from Gary Clark Jr., Shemekia Copeland, James Cotton, Keb’ Mo, Derek Trucks, the late Johnny Winter and longtime Waters guitarist John Primer, whose burly vocals are eerily reminiscent of his former boss. Representing various phases of Waters’ career, the 15 tracks are greased with old-school slide and harmonica as well as contemporary accoutrements like the drum loops boosting “Mannish Boy” and “Trouble No More,” and the fiddle that transforms “Rosalie” into a country dance. An instructive primer for newcomers (handsomely packaged with an essay by Waters biographer Robert Gordon), this is enjoyable on its own merits too.



JASON ISBELL, Something More Than Free (Southeastern): 4 Stars

Isbell’s keenly observed songs have earned comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Southern authors like Flannery O’Connor — rightly so. If this lacks a stop-you-in-your-tracks game-changer like “Elephant” from the Americana troubadour’s near-universally praised 2013 album “Southeastern,” its poetic eloquence and intellectual independence nonetheless solidify his already substantial claim to being one of our foremost songwriters. First to grab ears are “Children of Children” and the rocking “24 Frames” (“You thought God was an architect, now you know/ He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ And everything you built was all for show/ Goes up in flames”). Other highlights: the title track’s melodic character study, “Speed Trap Town,”  “Flagship.”


Carnival Caravan (Nation Beat): 3½ Stars

What would be birthed if you bred Mardi Gras with Brazil’s Carnival? This zesty EP offers a teasing suggestion, underscoring New Orleans second-line parade beats with Brazilian maracatu percussion. “Golden Crown” two-steps happily into zydeco country; with their blasting horns, overlapping rhythms and rapid-fire vocals, “Vou Cantar Esse Coco” and celebratory set closer “Liza Jane” offer deeper cross-cultural fusions. Party time, especially if you like to dance.

THE DESLONDES, The Deslondes (New West): 4 Stars

While it isn’t strictly necessary, it helps to have a working understanding of classic country, blues and soul idioms to appreciate the depth of this New Orleans quintet’s artistry. With multiple vocalists and songwriters onboard, including Hurray for the Riff Raff alums, a pleasing variety of rhythms and perspectives freshen the guitar-drums-fiddle-pedal steel setup that nods to NOLA, Nashville and Memphis while establishing an individual groove. It’s laid-back almost to a fault, but give it some time and the payoff’s sweet. At the Roxy in West Hollywood Thursday, July 16.

ARLEN ROTH, Slide Guitar Summit (Aquinnah): 3½ Stars

A thoroughly enjoyable treat for fans of slide guitar and lap steel, and a mini clinic for musicians. The guest list reads like a Who’s Who of roots music slide maestros — Cindy Cashdollar, Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Lee Roy Parnell, Rick Vito, Jimmy Vivino, the late Johnny Winter — and suggests a wicked blues summit. But with tunes like Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” it’s more like the roadhouse where blues, country, gospel and soul congregate to raise the roof.



DEAD ROCK WEST, It’s Everly Time! (Angel Flight): 3½ Stars

The Everly Brothers’ influence stretches wide, from Simon & Garfunkel to the Milk Carton Kids. Familiarity with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ oeuvre isn’t mandatory but does deepen appreciation of this handsome tribute, whose deliberate arrangements faithfully explore the enduring architecture of their melodies. Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennen’s harmonies complement one another in similar glimmer-and-shine fashion to the Everlys, while producer Mark Linett and ace players capture the sonic warmth and crispness of the original recordings. The emotionally fraught “Price of Love” and bonus track “(You Got) The Power of Love” edge closest to DRW’s own sound. At Hotel Café July 16.

MIGUEL, Wildheart (Sony): 4 Stars

Sex remains the Grammy-winning R&B Romeo’s primary lyrical focus throughout his third album, and bedroom jams like “Waves,” “Flesh” and the Lenny Kravitz-assisted “Face the Sun” should excite fans craving an “Adorn” reprise. Between earworm hooks (“Coffee”) and clever metaphors (the synth-wrapped “Valley,” which positions the porn industry as relationship prism), the San Pedro native also warily eyes “Hollywood Dreams”; deeper questions of identity and purpose lie poised behind the album’s rocking guitars and programmed beats like unpinned grenades. Highlights: “Leaves,” “What’s Normal Anyway” (“Too immoral for the Christians but too moral for the cutthroat/ Too far out for the in crowd/ …I wanna feel like I belong somewhere”).

LUDOVICO EINAUDI, Taranta Project (Ponderosa): 4 Stars

“Southern Italian trance”: Fascinated by the Italian taranta dance, classical composer/pianist Einaudi set about augmenting traditional orchestration with the loping rhythms, chants and percussion of West African desert blues, as well as Turkish ney (flute) and electronic effects from Mercan Dede. Kora master Ballaké Sissoko, ritti (fiddle) player Juldeh Camara and electric guitarist Justin Adams also guest. The complex compositions are made accessible by danceable rhythms and polyphonic harmonies; the results are entrancing. Highlights: “Taranta,” “Nazzu Nazzu,” “Mamma La Rondinella.”

MATT POND PA, The State of Gold (Doghouse): 3 Stars

The thoughtful indie-popster’s latest album feels like a summer soundtrack, circa 1985. Whether that’s a positive or a negative may, like beauty, be determined by the ear of the beholder. Stuttering synths and shuttling beats have some narcotic appeal, but lyrics like “There’s more than one way to live/ There’s more than one way to love” (title track “Pt. 1”) and “We can’t control what we cannot control” (“Don’t Look Down”) suggest arrested development or nostalgia addiction.



KACEY MUSGRAVES, Pageant Material (Mercury): 4 Stars

She’s often compared to fellow Texan Miranda Lambert, but throughout her second album Musgraves most often recalls Lee Ann Womack and frequent co-writer Brandy Clark, with her easy soprano and facility with intimately detailed, melodic songs grounded in working-class reality. Unflashy and mostly midtempo, the handsomely produced album’s smooth surfaces make it seem inconsequential — until Musgraves’ witty, compassionate lyrics start sinking in. Highlights: “High Time,” the sweet “Late to the Party,” “Somebody to Love” and title track (“I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t”).

DUBBEST, Light Flashes (self-released): 3½ Stars

The third album from these youthful Boston jammers is a sonic tonic of breezy, feel-good reggae-pop. Produced by John Brown’s Body/10 Ft. Ganja Plant engineer Craig Welsch, who imbues the tracks with the warm ambiance of ’70s-era roots reggae, songs like the earnestly romantic “One Thing” and “Give In” (“The suffering you face will only take you closer to the light”) float life-affirming mantras over infectious bass grooves. If you’re looking for a summer soundtrack, you could do worse than this easy-on-the-ears set.

FORT KNOX FIVE, Pressurize the Cabin (self-released): 3 Stars

A heavy-bottomed party platter from a Washington, DC-based ensemble cross-wiring funk, hip-hop and fun. The latter’s the not-so-secret ingredient, whether British soul man Ashley Slater’s getting playful with the double entendres and horn commentary of “Fire in My Belly,” Mustafa Akbar is boasting he’ll “Keep It Poppin’,” Thievery Corporation’s Sleepy Wonder is unleashing ska beats and auctioneer-fast raps for “24 Hours to Set It Off,” or the assembled crew’s fusing drones and disco for “Mission to the Sitars.”

LITTLE RICHARD, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty &

Vee-Jay Years (Specialty): 4½ Stars

“Little” Richard Penniman has seemed like a cartoon of his flamboyant whooping self for so damn long it’s easy to forget what genuinely astonishing and widely influential music the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer made early in his career. This raucous three-disc retrospective seeks to rectify that. Packaging his legendary ’50s Specialty hits (“Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” among others) with more soulful ’60s tracks recorded for Vee-Jay after he’d returned from his first retreat into the ministry, plus Billy Vera’s knowledgeable liner notes, it places him in broader, more illuminating context as an iconic singer and performer. This is seminal rock ‘n’ roll.



JOY WILLIAMS, Venus (Sony): 3½ Stars

The ex-Civil Wars vocalist’s first solo album in the wake of the Grammy-winning duo’s split retains their emotionally charged, dusky atmosphere while re-engaging her pop sensibility. Ghostly images glide around CW’s Americana backwoods during “Until the Levee,” but the album’s most truthfully represented by piano- and beats-bracketed confessionals like “One Day I Will” and “You Loved Me” (“I sold my story ’til the story started falling apart/ Every secret spoken out there in the open/ I pretended not to see”), elevated by co-writer Matt Morris’ Portishead-style production as Williams sings like a more emphatic Sarah McLachlan. Other highlights: “Woman (Oh Mama),” “What a Good Woman Does.”

CHICO TRUJILLO, Reina de Todas Las Fiestas (Barbès): 3½ Stars

The Chilean cumbia heroes span Latin America with their latest album, comprised of nine robust tracks recorded in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. Their homeland’s northern carnival music brightens their enticing rhythmic stew, which is also spiced with elements of Argentinean, Mexican and Peruvian folk and dance music. “Playas Marinas” drips sentiment, but the polyrhythmic percussion, horns and accordion of “Malgeniosa” and “La Cura Del Espanto” are more viscerally engaging. Party on.

ROBERT GLASPER, Covered (The Robert Glasper Trio Recorded Live at Capitol Studios) (Blue Note): 4 Stars

Revisiting material from his “Black Radio” albums and varied cover favorites in a lean trio setup, the Grammy-winning jazz/R&B pianist segues from his “I Don’t Care” into a melodic exploration of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” a snappy round of Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill” and the sensual “Good Morning.” Harry Belafonte’s raspy spoken-word recitation invests “Got Over” with gravitas; tom-toms and a grooving beat sounding behind children’s voices naming African-American victims of police shootings and declaring pride in their heritage on “I’m Dying of Thirst” close this musically gratifying, cleanly recorded set with cautious hope. 

UNCLE LUCIUS, The Light (Boo Clap/Thirty Tigers): 3½ Stars

Trials and travels inform the Austin roots-pop ensemble’s fourth album. Pithy lyrics give weight to hooky choruses and metaphorical rockers and travelogues like “Flood Then Fade Away” and “Taking in the View,” awash in far-flung geographical references, biblical and Beatles allusions, and guitar-keyboard duels that would do The Band proud. “We’re just scared of what we don’t know/ So we use pride like a debt we owe,” sings frontman Kevin Galloway on “Age of Reason.” “Oh, we say division comes from within/ But how we’re different will never mean as much as how we’re kin.” Amen.



LEON BRIDGES, Coming Home (Columbia): 4 Stars

Recorded with White Denim’s Josh Block and Austin Jenkins, who’ve been championing Bridges since befriending him at a Fort Worth bar last year, the 10-track “Coming Home” harks back to 1960 in its artwork and warm, hip-swaying sound. Sam Cooke’s the obvious reference, with clean production structured around Bridges’ soulful, unhurried vocals, the better to savor his uplifting message, from the opening title track through the simple, gospel-infused “River.” Bridges is receiving the kind of major-label rollout that essentially vanished with the 20th century; smooth and full of heart, his music’s refreshingly worthy of the promotional support. Highlights: dance-floor magnet “Smooth Sailin,” “Lisa Sawyer,” the soul-gospel plea “Shine.”


CAYUCAS, Dancing at the Blue Lagoon  (Secretly Canadian): 3½ Stars

Twin brothers Zach and Ben Yudin’s sophomore album is a feel-good pop platter with crisper sound and a shade more introspection than 2013’s “Bigfoot.” Sun, sea, lighthouses, T-shirts — their imagery evokes California’s coastline, and the music enhances that kick-back vibe, from the synths swelling behind “Big Winter Jacket” through the title track’s light Caribbean feel, the yearning nostalgia of “Ditches” and the acoustic change of pace of “Blue Lagoon (Theme Song).” Good driving music. At One Colorado in Old Pasadena Saturday.

THE STEELDRIVERS,The Muscle Shoals Recordings  (Rounder): 4 Stars

The Grammy-nominated ensemble’s fourth album effectively fuses bluegrass and soul, with frontman/guitarist Gary Nichols tearing into “Drinkin’ Alone” (penned by ex-Steeldriver Chris Stapleton and Jay Knowles) and fiddler Tammy Rogers’ Civil War-themed “River Runs Red” with the kind of gritty, open-throated ferocity more commonly associated with Wilson Pickett than Bill Monroe. Skillful rhythmic interplay gives the music power, with guest Jason Isbell’s slide guitar adding a subtle swampy undertow to “Brother John” (“You’ll have to live with the decisions that you let your temper make/ Better get on across that river ’fore they put you in a rage”).


BROOKLYN GYPSIES, Sin Fronteras (WonderWheel): 3½ Stars

Yes, they’re from New York, and a restless gypsy feel dominates their music; they’re well named. But Balkan horns, flamenco guitar, Arabic oud, dub, reggae and Russian folk melodies thread through their colorful quilt too, alongside synths and programmed beats. The album’s uneven but intriguing, with highlights “Camels of Blue,” the heavily percussive “Desert Moon” and the belly-dance-tempting “Marfa” sparking curiosity about what they’ll do next.



MELODY GARDOT, Currency of Man (The Artist’s Cut)  (Decca): 4 Stars

The jazz-pop vocalist reteams with producer Larry Klein and A-list players (guitarist Dean Parks, trumpeter Jerry Hey) for an atmospheric set that’s thematically and rhythmically weightier than previous albums, and only intermittently jazzy. “He who got the money, man, they say he who make the rules,” she croons over a percussive undertow during “Don’t Talk,” one of several tart observations of her world. Other highlights: the cautionary “It Gonna Come” and Emmett Till-inspired “Preacherman,” an urgent indictment that effectively places Gardot’s smoldering delivery amidst a martial groove, gospel-y choir, angry electric guitars and horns. Smart and elegantly wrought.


REVEREND TALL TREE, Reverend Tall Tree (Pierce): 3 Stars

As a singer-songwriter, Chris Pierce is known for vocal swoops and balladry reminiscent of old-school soul pioneers Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. He gives free reign to those inclinations as his sharp-suited alter ego, framed by rootsy instrumentation and squawking harmonica. It’s uneven — straight-ahead blues (“Railroad Line,” the fuzz-toned “Bad Bad Whiskey”) pale beside song-focused tracks (“How Do You Get Over That,” the gospel-tinged “Everlasting Light”) that accommodate his dynamic arcs — but Pierce remains compelling. At Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood Thursday, June 18.

DAWES, All Your Favorite Bands (HUB): 4 Stars

Produced by Dave Rawlings and recorded at his Nashville studio, the ingratiating LA ensemble quietly fortifies its status as a bridge band between ’70s folk-rock (The Band, CSN&Y, Jackson Browne) and 21st-century Americana. If they lack The Band’s earthy soul — vocally, frontman Taylor Goldsmith is no Levon Helm, though he clearly gleaned some insights on songwriting craft from Robbie Robertson — Dawes nonetheless establish a groove as steady as it is welcoming. Highlights: the bittersweet title track, “To Be Completely Honest,” “Waiting for Your Call.”


HOLYCHILD, The Shape of Brat Pop to Come (Glassnote): 3½ Stars

“If we could hold the tongue and focus all our time through/ We would rise above this cycle that we’re bound to…” Liz Nistico and Louie Diller’s lyrics are thoughtful as well as cheeky, wrapped in thick, sticky arrangements of synths and bouncy, programmed beats that suggest the LA-based duo’s music library is well stocked with the Bangles, Blondie and Prince. Highlights: “Barbie Nation,” “Tell Me How It Is,” “Diamonds on the Rebound.” Performing in-store at Amoeba in Hollywood Thursday, June 11.



SAM OUTLAW, Angeleno (Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers): 3½ Stars

The LA-based artist extends the tradition of storytelling country a la Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam, backed by members of Dawes, My Morning Jacket, Punch Brothers, and co-producers Ry and Joachim Cooder. Such a steeply pedigreed crew could hijack a tenderfoot’s music, but Outlaw’s sturdy, smartly arranged songs of working-class struggles and romance are fortified by the washes of steel and strings and mariachi horn flourishes. Highlights: “Country Love Song,” “Ghost Town,” gospel plea “Keep a Close Eye on Me.” At Silverlake Lounge in Silverlake Wednesday.


WES MONTGOMERY, In the Beginning (Resonance): 4 Stars

An exploratory vigor animates 26 recently excavated tracks, circa 1949-1958: five studio tracks produced by a young Quincy Jones and a few other rare recordings join live performances with Montgomery’s brothers, pianist Buddy and bassist Monk. Their energy bristles — the legendary jazz guitarist’s solos still evolving, his smooth, swinging, fingerpicked style already discernible. Montgomery’s chords tastefully frame Pookie Johnson’s tenor sax before his own fretboard-spanning solo on 1956’s “What is There to Say?”; his playing smokes throughout 1957’s “All the Things You Are,” audience shouts confirming he was heating up the club. The enjoyable two-disc set’s packaged with a 54-page booklet of detailed notes from Jones, producer Zev Feldman, Buddy Montgomery, more. Illuminating window into Montgomery’s artistry.

HONEYHONEY, 3 (Rounder/Concord): 4 Stars

Guitarist Ben Jaffe and banjoist/violinist Suzanne Santo’s dynamic chemistry infuses the LA-based duo’s third album, recorded with Jason Isbell/Shooter Jennings producer Dave Cobb. More rocking than 2011’s “Billy Jack” with similarly rustic instrumentation, it’s a winning set fronted by Santo’s smoky, tough-but-tender vocals and ear-tugging melodies like those winding through “Numb It,” “Father’s Daughter” (“Darkness to me almost looks like a light/ I know I’m in hot water/ If I’m my father’s daughter”) and the uplifting, harmony- and steel-laced pledge “Yours to Bear.”


THE WEEPIES, Sirens (Nettwerk): 3½ Stars

Husband-and-wife folk-pop duo Steve Tannen and Debra Talan return from a five-year break with 16 songs informed by change, family and Talan’s remission from breast cancer. The ruminative, transporting quality of the title track, “Boys Who Want to Be Girls” and the rhythmically insistent “No Trouble” is counterbalanced by the sunny bounce of “Never Let You Down,” “Brand New Pair of Wings” and an earnest reading of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” RIYL Sara Bareilles, Everything But the Girl. At Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre Tuesday.



THE LONDON SOULS, Here Come the Girls (Feel/Round Hill): 4 Stars

Guitar-slinging frontman Tash Neal and drummer Chris St. Hilaire coopt vintage influences — the Beatles, ’70s classic rock, Memphis R&B — into a stylishly ingratiating hybrid. The New York-based duo know their way around a pop hook, something that separates them from other rock duos, as do their harmonies; with its roadhouse piano fills and country-dusted vocals, “Bobby James” evokes The Band’s heyday. Other highlights: “Hercules,” greasy stomper “Honey.” Should appeal to fans of Gary Clark Jr., JJ Grey and Dr. Dog. At the Mint in LA Sunday.


KAIL BAXLEY, A Light That Never Die (Forty Below): 3½ Stars

The native South Carolinian shifts from horn-punched R&B (“Mr. Downtown”) to old-school soul (the swoony “Tell the Falling Sun”), stuttering electronic effects (“Better FeelN’ Better Days”), slide- and violin-colored balladry (“Owe”) and hopeful pop (“Mirrors of Paradise”), yet sustains a grooving, compelling consistency throughout this full-length follow-up to 2013’s double EP “Heatstroke/The Wind and War.” Baxley and co-producer Eric Corne present his compositions in rich arrangements that make the most of his seductive tone and lyrical attraction to dark nights of the soul. RIYL Hozier and Jeff Buckley.

J.D. MCPHERSON, Let the Good Times Roll (Rounder/Concord): 4 Stars

Veering from the rockabilly infusions of 2012’s attention-getting “Signs & Signifiers” into soul and R&B, the eclectic Oklahoman changes things up with tougher, more sophisticated arrangements and vocal finesse. McPherson still rolls retro — “It Shook Me Up” could easily soundtrack a ’56 Caddy’s cruising — and he’s clearly studied Sam Cooke, et al enough to recognize what’s most essential: fun. Highlights: “It’s All Over But the Shouting,” the Dan Auerbach co-write “Bridgebuilder.” At Amoeba in Hollywood June 1; opening for Robert Plant at Greek Theatre in Griffith Tuesday.


RYLEY WALKER, Primrose Green (Dead Oceans): 4 Stars

The footloose Chicagoan follows last year’s graceful “All Kinds of You” with another set of stirring guitar-centered music, vividly garbed in British folk-rock influences — think Nick Drake and John Martyn at an early-’70s jazz jam — and eclectic instrumentation (cello, guitars, keyboards, percussion, standup bass, vibraphone, viola). Walker’s technically assured fingerstyle playing evokes an alternate aural universe, one that will likely attract fans of John Fahey and onetime collaborator Daniel Bachman. Highlights: the trippy “Summer Dress,” Celtic-flavored “Griffiths Bucks Blues,” “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee.” At the Echo in Echo Park Tuesday.



TRACEY THORN, Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing (Virago Press): 4 Stars

Everything But the Girl singer and erstwhile pop star Thorn forthrightly contemplates singing: the physical production of sound, singing’s role in communal settings, collaborative relationship between listener and performer, stage fright, tugs of war between “authenticity” and “artificiality.” The latter’s one of several pithy topics she discusses with xx frontwoman Romy Madley Croft, Scritt Politti’s Green Gartside, Kristin Hersh, Alison Moyet and Linda Thompson. Her descriptions are wonderfully, wittily vivid. On Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”: “Four weeks at number one for a debut single about a Victorian novel isn’t bad going — and proved once again that with rock and pop singing it’s probably safe to say that you can never go too far in your quest to find a distinctive voice for yourself.” Thorn’s insights into a singer’s job generate deeper views into pop music, though candid admissions like “I’d love to be Adele for a day” also align her with fans — who’ll likely savor this as much as singers.



(Party Fowl/Thirty Tigers): 3½ Stars

The New York-based “hard soul collective” groove steady throughout a satisfying party platter helmed by Lumineers producer Ryan Hadlock and fired up by righteous horns, a slamming rhythm section, and Arleigh Kincheloe. The vocal dynamo struts, teases, moans and wails like a spiritual love child of Beyonce and Susan Tedeschi testifying in a Beale Street revival tent. Highlights: “Sugar,” “Mama Knows.” At Hotel Café in Hollywood Wednesday.

JERRY LAWSON, Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet): 3 Stars

Making his solo debut after fronting a cappella soul ensemble the Persuasions for 40 years, Lawson demonstrates the benefits of taking your time. There’s a relaxed, matter-of-fact conviction in his velvet-toned delivery throughout this steel-washed soul and country set, whether confessing (title track), begging (“Down on My Knees”) or resigning himself to inevitability (“Time and Water”). The man knows how to tell a story by sculpting notes.


MONOSWEZI, Monoswezi Yanga (Riverboat/World Music): 3 Stars

Zimbabwean mbira and Mozambican percussion meet Scandinavian jazz, an intriguing summit fronted by Hope Masike’s sweet vocals and mbira playing. African folk melodies and jazz saxophone aren’t necessarily an instinctive match; “Wadadisa” sounds like they’re trying to fit it all together. The sensuous “Naku Xuva” and “Mhondor” flow more easily, highlights on a worthy ride.



LIZ LONGLEY, Liz Longley (Sugar Hill): 4 Stars

The gossamer sweetness of the Berklee grad’s soprano grabs attention upfront on her fourth full-length album — her first with a proper label — but it doesn’t take long for her melodic sophistication and intimate lyrics to make an impact. “Memphis,” “Bad Habit” and “Outta My Head” are folk-pop earworms, and Longley’s tasteful dips into standard-style pop and jazzy R&B (“You’ve Got That Way,” “Never Loved Another”) give this 11-track set refreshing stylistic diversity as she taps into emotions deep and true. Recommended for fans of Shawn Colvin and Sarah McLachlan. At McCabe’s in Santa Monica Friday.


BEST COAST, California Nights (Harvest): 3½ Stars

Throughout their third full-length album, girlish vocalist Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumental bandmate Bobb Bruno seem to be reaching higher than on previous releases, from the anthemic opener “Feeling OK” through blithe indictments of self and society like “When Will I Change” and “So Unaware” (“What is life, what is love, what’s the meaning of it all/ Do I even care or is it just that I am so unaware”). For all the crunching guitars and upbeat rhythms, their summer drivetime pop’s defined by doubt-shadowed lines like “I wish that I had a friend/ Who would just tell me I’m fine.” 

OTIS TAYLOR, Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat (Trance Blues): 3½ Stars

The eclectic Colorado artist’s signature “trance blues” get a melodic change-up and infusions of Hendrix-style dynamics on tracks like the classic “Hey Joe” and Taylor’s “Sunday Morning,” which each receive alternate treatments. Otherworldly cornetist Ron Miles, violinist Anne Harris and guests Warren Haynes and Langhorne Slim amplify the primal thrum and groove of Taylor’s compositions. A quarter are instrumentals; the rest center on romance and good intentions gone awry, rather than the weighty concerns (slavery, poverty, discrimination) dominating past albums — a surprising thematic shift that tightens focus on Taylor’s musicality.


TALLEST MAN ON EARTH, Dark Bird is Home (Oceans)3½ Stars

Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson returns as his musical alter ego, this time dressing his thin tenor and cleanly picked folk melodies with fuller instrumentation (banjo, guitars, horns, keyboard, percussion, strings). He’s still dealing in lengthy skeins of pretty poetry (“You smell like smoke and honey in my arms”) but seems less introspectively fixated, more observant of his relation to larger landscapes. Highlights: “Little Nowhere Towns,” “Sagres.” At the Wiltern in LA Monday.



CHRIS STAPLETON, Traveller (Mercury): 4 Stars

Adele likened his roof-rocking voice to caramel; caramelized sand is more like it, akin to ’60s Southern soul greats. The native Kentuckian’s melismatic runs on “Tennessee Whiskey” demonstrate his familiarity with their oeuvre. While Tim McGraw’s “Whiskey and You” cover sounded resigned, Stapleton’s delivery reveals a man wrestling with after-midnight demons, a la classic soul or blues. “Traveller” doesn’t quite capture his live magnetic intensity — overproduction dims the spark of knockout ballad “Sometimes I Cry” — but it’s melodically rich, handsomely arranged, and radio-ready. After watching the likes of Kenny Chesney and George Strait notch hits with his songs, Stapleton seems hungry to strike paydirt on his own.


KAMASI WASHINGTON, The Epic (Brainfeeder): ½ Stars

Stretching over three volumes or sides and nearly three hours, the visionary Flying Lotus/Kendrick Lamar saxophonist’s long-awaited album is aptly titled. The Inglewood native declares his intent with 12-minute opening tracks “Change of the Guard” and “Askim,” figuratively raising his horn to pour out his story above Patrice Quinn’s soaring harmonies, urgent guitar passages and Fela-esque percussion. Progressive as tunes like “The Magnificent 7” and “The Message” are, their intricately textured treatments and the album’s scope invite comparisons to landmarks past (hello, “Giant Steps”). Washington’s jazz is deep and audacious, offering much to savor. 

BETH HART, Better Than Home (Mascot): 3 ½ Stars

The volcanic angst and guitar-slashing, piano-pounding rockers that dominated 2003’s “Leave the Light On” and  “My California” share centerstage here with string-embellished midtempo pop like the aching “Tell Her You Belong to Me” and “We’re Still Living in the City,” which gracefully showcase Hart’s interpretive finesse and songwriting. She offers sober insights and self-reflection with moving ballads like “St. Teresa,” and tempering the Joplin-esque vocalist’s raw-nerve vitality paradoxically makes soul groovers like “Might as Well Smile” and “The Mood That I’m In” more potent.


MATT LAX & NEARLY BELOVED, This House of Mine (Attaboy): 3 Stars

A laid-back, melodic set from Bay Area guitarist Lax and a well-credentialed band of compadres. Guitars, banjo, cello and mandolin weave a sweet instrumental tapestry occasionally threaded with accordion and horns as Lax contemplates romance, people and places he’s known (“The hardest time is in the afternoon/ The sun strains to find me in the corner of the room/ The curtains sit idle and the wind won’t blow/ This house of mine has known so many souls”). At Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena Sunday.



ALABAMA SHAKES, Sound & Color (ATO): 4 Stars

Wildly lauded for 2012’s “Boys & Girls,” the eclectic Alabama foursome seems destined for more of the same. It’s easy to ID threads of ’60s Southern soul, ’70s funk, punk and Rolling Stones raunch, but the toughness of the Shakes’ weave is grounded in contemporary mores and reality. Like the greats from whom she seems to draw inspiration — Janis Joplin, Robert Plant — frontwoman Brittany Howard is resolute and fearless, tearing into rocking grooves (“Don’t Wanna Fight”) and utilizing her falsetto to Prince-like effect (“Future People,” “Over My Head”) throughout an ambitious set that grooves and rawks. Bring it.


JOHN MORELAND, High on Tulsa Heat (Thirty Tigers): 4 Stars

“This is a record about home. Whatever that is,” the Oklahoma troubadour writes in liner notes to this 10-song keeper. No explanation’s necessary; Moreland’s lyrics poignantly blend self-aware emotion with poetic confession, and he sings like his heart’s been skinned and singing keeps it pumping. Which sounds beautiful, thanks to open melodies that inspire harmonies and too many pithy turns of phrase to track. Homesick or lovesick, they invite repeated listens. Highlights: “Cherokee,” “Losing Sleep Tonight.” At the Roxy in West Hollywood Sunday.

THE FONTAINES, The Fontaines (self-released): 3 Stars

A clever conceit — naming songs after movie and music stars — animates this sibling duo’s five-track EP. Frontwoman Charlotte and guitarist Hank were nominally inspired by Cate Blanchett, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman (“blue-eyed baby”) and Dusty Springfield, but it’s Charlotte’s confidently stylish vocal personality that dominates their swingy “new-wop” tunes. Lightly jazz, avidly pop, the most old-school thing about them is their charm. The Fontaines wind up their residency at Harvard & Stone in Hollywood Tuesday.


ANDREW COMBS, All These Dreams (Coin)4 Stars

The smooth, soft glow about the Nashvillean’s latest album occasionally evokes late-’70s/early-’80s country records, with its vivid stories, lovelorn characters, varied moods and guitar melodies warmly burnished by piano and strings, and Combs’ rough vocal burr echoed in pedal steel. His songs pack introspective punch: “Friend once told me, he said, ‘Boy/ You sound so lonely/ All these cheating, leaving, done-me-wrongs /Ever heard of a happy song’/ Offended I set down my glass/ Smiled and let the moment pass/ …Laughter ain’t a pleasure ’til you know about crying.” At the Bootleg Hifi Friday.



CALEXICO, Edge of the Sun: 4 Stars

Whatever’s in the drinking water in the desert, it’s reinvigorated the vibey, Southwestern-dusted sound bassist Joey Burns and percussionist John Convertino have been finessing since their mid-’90s tenure with Friends of Dean Martinez. “Edge” crackles with more electric purpose and pop-forward songs, supported by friends including Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Neko Case. Standout tracks like “Moon Never Rises,” with its shimmying horns, guitars and eerie harmonies, are accessible without sacrificing the cinematic quality that’s become Calexico’s trademark. Other highlights: “Bullets and Rocks,” the electronics-filtered “Cumbia de Donde,” “World Undone.”


HUMMING HOUSE, Revelries (Rock Ridge): 3 Stars

A lively, engaging set from a Nashville quintet whose strength lies in their eclecticism. Bluegrass, country, folk, gospel, jazz and echoes of Celtic sing-alongs thread through the 11 cleanly produced tracks, boosted by stirring harmonies and rootsy acoustic instrumentation. Highlights such as the bluesy “Nuts, Bolts and Screws,” “Carry On” and the effects-dotted “This Hell Where We Belong” beg to be experienced live, and should appeal to fans of Lake Street Dive and the Lone Bellow. At Hotel Café in Hollywood Thursday, April 23.

LADY LAMB, After (Mom+Pop): 3½ Stars

Lamb, known offstage as Aly Spaltro, mines surprising emotional resonance from mundane items like “Sunday Shoes” and “Milk Duds.” Unpredictability’s a constant throughout the Maine native’s sophomore album, whether it’s the horns giving “Violet Clementine” liftoff, the dynamic shifts of “Penny Licks” or the sad foresight of “Vena Cava” (“I can feel how the seams of your ribs will separate from the seams of my ribs/ I know already how much TV will fail to comfort me in your absence”). At the Echo in Echo Park Thursday, April 23.


LOW CUT CONNIE, Hi Honey (Contender): 3½ Stars 

The NJ-UK duo (Adam Weiner and Daniel Finnemore) team with Alabama Shakes/Amy Winehouse producer Thomas Brenneck and members of the Allman Brothers, Budos Band, Dap-Kings and Tune-Yards for their third album. It’s an old-school rock-‘n’-roll workout, complete with horns and gospel-y backup vocals, Stonesy raunch (“Shake It Little Tina”), punk angst (“Dumb Boy”) and Springsteen-esque characters (“Danny’s Outta Money”: “He’s gonna have to sell his kidney/ If we don’t get no record deal by the end of June”). These guys probably have a deeper music library than your favorite DJ, but they salute heroes without mimickry.



JOSÉ JAMES, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday 

(Blue Note): 4 Stars 

Where Cassandra Wilson’s recent tribute gave Billie Holiday’s music an otherworldly cast, this Don Was-produced salute is more minimalist, allowing melodies to lounge dishabille. Pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland jam hard on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” but otherwise this feels like an after-hours club set; they tease out the longing blues in Holiday’s balladry (“Fine and Mellow,” “Tenderly,” “God Bless the Child”) while James’ intimate readings tunnel into each song’s emotional core. The capper is “Strange Fruit,” with James singing lead and harmony a cappella — gospel in a haunted church.


PIMPS OF JOYTIME, Jukestone Paradise (Write Home): 4 Stars

“Bring your body to the party/ You might just get in,” Brian J, Mayteana Morales and Cole Williams-X promise over a popping bass line and handclap-embellished beats that evoke ’70s-’80s funk and disco. This Brooklyn quintet’s third album is a happy funk feast abundantly spiced with blues, electronic effects, rock drive and and New Orleans grooves, demonstrating why the Pimps have become jamband festival favorites. Highlights: the ambitious, eight-and-a-half-minute dancefloor blast “Freedom Dancer,” “Dance Cardia” with Rubblebucket, the harmonica-threaded “Dank Janky.”


(Tight Natural/Foot Pole): 3½ Stars

“These songs were improvised live in studio, no rehearsals, no second takes.” That liner note intro sets the scene for a quasi-experimental collaboration between Negro Problem frontman-turned-Tony-winning composer Stew and LA’s twang-surf-jazz crew DNSC. Think acid jazz meets prog rock … in a back alley, near a beach. Stew’s symbol-freighted lyrics punch and tumble in their own rhythmic circle; thus the comparitively rustic “Blue Dust,” with Paul Lacques’ Dobro illuminating Stew’s vivid wordplay, is probably the most accessible track. Esoteric? Yes. It’s also witty, provocative, and weirdly compelling.,


SHADOWLANDS, Shadowlands (self-released): 3 Stars

Dramatic interplay between cello, piano and harmonies defines this San Luis Obispo quartet’s elegantly constructed folk-pop. Those harmonies and pianist Karoline Hausted’s soprano sweeten tracks like “Restless Mind” and the jangly “When You Said No” — a light vs. dark dance that continues throughout these 12 songs. The most affecting moments occur when either Hausted or Wendy Liepman’s duskier tones explore poetic corners of ballads like “Evaporate,” “Ordinary Magic” or “Fallen Star” over simple accompaniment. Playing Cellar Sessions at Old Oak Cellar in Pasadena Sunday, April 12.



CASSANDRA WILSON, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy): 4 Stars

Similar to how Billie Holiday’s behind-the-beat phrasing broke with jazz tradition, Wilson’s idiosyncratic style and musical curiosity transcend genres. Here the Grammy-winning chanteuse re-dreams Holiday’s music in tandem with top-flight players and Nick Cave producer Nick Launay, in vibey arrangements thick with guitars, piano, saxophone and drums. Where Lady Day adopted rueful, conversational approaches to “Don’t Explain” and “Good Morning Heartache,” string-heavy selections from her 1940s Decca catalogue, Wilson transforms them into hypnotic seductions. “Billie’s Blues” revels in earthy sensuality, though the dramatic orchestration underscoring the surreal horror of “Strange Fruit” nearly overwhelms its stark poetry. A grand showcase for Wilson’s interpretive virtuosity, and a spiritually honest tribute to Holiday.


RAY WYLIE HUBBARD, The Ruffian’s Misfortune (Bordello/Thirty Tigers): 3½ Stars

You know what you’re getting with Hubbard  — mean slide guitar, throbbing bluesy rhythms, twisted wit — but some of the Texas veteran’s albums pack more concentrated punch than others. Count this a winner. Credit its rocking dynamic to son Lucas Hubbard’s and Gabe Rhodes’ electric fretwork, not to mention longtime drummer Rick Richards and bassist/co-producer George Reiff. But it’s Hubbard’s flinty worldview and metaphor-rich songwriting that spark the fire in keepers like “Chick Singer Badass Rockin’,” “Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues,” “Stone Blind Horses.”


WILLY PORTER, Human Kindness (Weasel): 3 Stars
Easy-going grooves and engaging pop melodies set a hopeful tone throughout the Wisconsin folk-rocker’s studio return following his 2013 “Cheeseburgers and Gasoline” collaboration with Carmen Nickerson. Longtime acoustic fans will likely savor his robust guitar work and romantic paeans like “Constellation”; the spirit and rubbery spring of tracks like “Elouise” and “This Train” may perk jam-band ears too. Other highlights: “Walking With the Man,” title track (“All our second chances come/ When we’re done closing our eyes”).


SEAHORSE, The Fire’s Heart (Ravens Flight)3 Stars

Conflicted characters and poetic images distinguish this tuneful collection from Seahorse, aka Willamette Valley-based guitarist/songwriter Rich Swanger and whatever players he rings around his sweetly soothing melodies. Songs like “This Little Light” and “Mansion” nod in the direction of folk/Americana forebears like Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen, minus the former’s twang and the latter’s gravitas. Highlights: “Nightingale,” “Tyndall Rose,” “Anchor” (“I don’t know where I’m going/ I don’t know where you’ve been/ All I know is the boat keeps drifting/ And the fog comes crawling through the bay”).



KENDRICK LAMAR, To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope): 4½ Stars

The Compton native’s latest opens with warm, crackling vinyl fading into a vintage soul chorus — but neither it, nor its surface message, is what it seems, as a George Clinton-intoned segue and the saxophone-centered “For Free?” make profanely clear. Lamar tackles urgent, meaty themes — celebrity, guilt, love, poverty, racism, spiritual need — with linguistic agility and an open mind sonically manifested in creative deployment of funk synths, jazz saxophone, R&B and quirky flourishes like the choral “zoom zoom”s of “Institutionalized” that incongruously recall space-age pop composer Esquivel. Taken collectively, “Butterfly” offers fierce musical testimony to life in complex times. Highlights: “These Walls,” “u,” “How Much a Dollar Cost,” “The Blacker the Berry.”



(Ramseur): 3 Stars

The sweetness in these melodic duets suggests more hopefulness than troubled troubadour Smith found in life; the melancholy imbuing his own recordings is here often implied rather than showcased (“Twilight,” “Angeles” and “Angel in the Snow” being notable exceptions). That approach may jar fans who regard Smith’s music like balm from a friend who truly understands, though it also celebrates Smith’s compositional elegance. Avett and Mayfield perform at Wilshire Ebell Theatre in LA Tuesday.



Freedom & Dreams (NMO): 3½ Stars

Fans of New Orleans groove and Mississippi blues should appreciate this relaxed, genre-spanning collaboration. With Bob Dylan/Lucinda Williams producer Mark Howard at the controls at Louisiana’s famed Dockside Studios, it’s an inspired connection of kindred musical spirits awash in slide guitar and muddy soul. “Away, Way Too Long” and “Brush Up Against You” are easygoing jams, while the slow-burning “Katrina” finds a new way to express the Crescent City’s post-hurricane struggles. At the Troubadour in West Hollywood Wednesday.


DAYNA KURTZ, Rise & Fall (M.C.): 4 Stars

A poetic evocation of change — divorce, relocation from New York to New Orleans, her father’s death, new love — that haunts and heals. Sympatico players (accordion, banjo, guitars, lap steel, mandolin, organ, upright bass, violin) enhance Kurtz’s dreamy ballads, while her smoldering alto extracts melodic beauty from pain, notably “You’re Not What I Need (But You’re All That I Want)” and “The Hole” (“I see you teaching me how to lay fires/ In a circle of rocks like this one where you’ll lie/ I’m humming a lullaby you used to sing/ With my head on your chest”).



MOON DUO, Shadow of the Sun (Sacred Bones): 3 Stars

Technically they’re a trio, now that John Jeffrey’s taut drumbeats are sounding like portents behind Ripley Johnson’s alternately fierce and fuzz-toned guitar and Sanae Yamada’s mood-setting keyboard, and the music benefits from that expanded dynamic. Their sonic palette’s still saturated and psychedelic, but between the disembodied zombie insistence of “Free the Skull” and the punked-up “Animal,” their softly lulling “In a Cloud” refreshes the ears. At Los Globos in Silver Lake Tuesday.


LEO “BUD” WELCH, I Don’t Prefer No Blues 

(Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess): 3½ Stars

The Mississippi octogenarian’s second proper album buzzes with his distorted guitar tones and the earthy, urgent rhythms of his home state’s hill country. “Got a girl in the holler” is about as complex as Welch’s lyrics get, but these are mostly juke-joint blues designed to keep dancers gyrating and barflies drinking. The exception is “Pray On,” a muddied, thumping twist on a Pops Staples gospel tune. Other highlights: a stripper-beat groove through the blues chestnut “Goin’ Down Slow,” “So Many Turnrows.”


DONNA LEWIS, Brand New Day (Palmetto): 4 Stars
This tasty collaboration between Welsh-born, New York state-based chanteuse Lewis and progressive jazz trio the Bad Plus is a clinic in style and delivery. Wielding her breathy contralto with surgical precision, Lewis sets a contemplative tone with “Sleep” and thoughtfully rethinks her ’90s hit “I Love You Always Forever.” But this is primarily a covers set, in time-honored jazz tradition; her readings of Chocolate Genius’ “My Mom,” David Bowie’s “Bring Me the Head of the Disco King” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March” beat to her interpretive pulse, not the originals.


THE MAVERICKS, Mono (Valory): 4 Stars

They’re baaack … and their swinging mix of Latin grooves, pop standards, R&B and country melodicism remains a smooth, nerve-loosening cocktail. Frontman Raul Malo is a rousingly expressive balladeer, as evidenced by his old-school soul pleading on “The Only Question Is” and the seductively crooned “Fascinate Me.” He’s just as rhythmically and emotionally commanding with “What Am I Supposed to Do,” the late Doug Sahm’s “Nitty Gritty” and the salsa-flavored “All Night Long,” infectious dance invitations that showcase the band’s eclecticism and brawny musicianship. At the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood Wednesday.



ALLISON MOORER, Down to Believing (eOne): 4 Stars

The Alabama-raised songstress’ first album since 2010’s folk-weighted “Crows” is a visceral, bracing return to the soul-dipped country-rock of earlier recordings, as she unleashes wall-rattling anger and hard-learned wisdom gleaned from raising an autistic son and divorcing ex Steve Earle. Producer Kenny Greenberg’s electric fretwork brings a brawny toughness matching the burning force of Moorer’s vocals on raging plaints (“Mama Let the Wolf In,” “Tear Me Apart”), and echoes intimate heartaches that inspire repeat listens (the rueful title track, “Wish I”: “Wish I was your whiskey, baby/ Wish I was on your breath/ Wish you would hold me like you/ Hold your cigarette”).


A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS, Transfixiation (Dead Oceans): 3 Stars

As on past albums, frontman Oliver Ackermann seems to drone from a shadowy tunnel, his bleak tones bathed in reverb. Here, however, he’s backed by a slamming rhythm section: bassist Dion Lunadon and new drummer Robi Gonzalez. Inverting customary pop/rock tropes, their frenetic beats and guitar squall are mixed upfront, undergirding and amplifying the ominous sense of dread pervading tracks like “We’ve Come So Far” and “Now It’s Over” more than Ackermann’s disembodied vocals. At the Echoplex in Echo Park Sunday.


JAMES MCMURTRY, Complicated Game  (INGrooves/Fontana): 4½ Stars

The irascible Austinite’s latest album, produced by CC Adcock and Mike Napolitano, looks beyond politics to the costs of everyday choices, with melodic hooks embellishing the bittersweet beauty of his lyrics. McMurtry’s settled into his cynicism, its hard edges framing the indignant, compassionate heart beating inside his character portraits and commentaries. He’s his own kind of poet, yet Guy Clark comes to mind while listening to the thick, revealing detail of “Carlisle’s Haul,” “South Dakota” and the rumbling “How’m I Gonna Find You Now”; McMurtry’s similarly adroit at delivering meaningful stories through song.


BRANDON SANTINI, Live & Extended! (Vizztone): 4 Stars

For listeners outside Memphis, “Who the hell is that?” is a likely response to hearing Santini’s name. Understandable, but sad. As this crisply recorded concert set enjoyably demonstrates, the burly vocalist/harmonica player fronts a tight, grooving band with the kind of rhythmic grease and gritty, whiskey-toughened vocals that made blues careers in times past. Recorded last year in Quebec, it’s a vital, ear-pleasing set dominated by originals, with choice covers like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Elevate Me Mama” showing Santini understands the legacy he’s striving to carry forward.



VERNERI POHJOLA, Bullhorn (Edition): 4 Stars

The Helsinki-based trumpeter and composer’s third proper album is a refined late-night jazz outing. “Girls of Costa Rica” and the brisk title track explore gradually escalating midtempo grooves as Pohjola trades figures with pianist Aki Rissanen and masterfully restrained drummer Teppo Mäkynen, but the album’s most memorable moments occur during more brooding tracks like “This One is for You,” “The End is Nigh” and especially “He Sleeps, I Keep Watch,” where impressively spare arrangements and Pohjola’s expressive playing combine to make this a lean, lyrical keeper.


FOY VANCE, Live at Bangor Abbey (Glassnote): 4 Stars

The heart-on-sleeve Irish troubadour’s passionate affinity for American roots music translates into Southern soul-style vocals and Appalachian-flavored pop melodies throughout this crystalline concert set. The music sometimes veers into melodrama, but that voice raises chillbumps. “At Least My Heart Was Open” and the secular prayer “Joy of Nothing” set the emotionally gripping tone from the top, the recording’s sonic clarity enhancing the sense that the audience is hanging on every note. Other highlights: an effects-dappled “You and I,” the Springsteen-esque “Janey,” and bluesy gospel showstopper “Make It Rain.”


TALL TALE AND THE SILVER LINING, Tightropes  (Other Music): 3 Stars
Pleasantly retro pop-rock — particularly if you’ve a taste for ’70s FM radio, as this makes a sturdy case for the enduring influence of Tom Petty and Gram Parsons. Frontman Trevor Beld Jimenez similarly works his limited vocal range to Everyman advantage amidst ear-pleasing harmonies and guitars conjuring sunnier, carefree days, even as lyrics express more jaded perspectives (“We get older, some get lost and gone/ Some get colder, some get walked upon”). Highlights: “Something to Believe In,” “Harder for You,” “Wade Through the Storm.” At the Mint in LA Thursday, March 12.


TRENT DABBS, Believer (Ready Set): 3½ Stars

Vibey tunes to keep company during a long drive or a deep brood, enhanced by pedal steel, harmonica and fragile harmonies. The rollicking “World on Time” sounds like something from TV’s “Nashville” (which has used several Dabbs songs), but the most striking tracks present the Nashville songwriter’s vulnerable tenor over piano or acoustic guitar and simple percussion; his introspective lyrics demand intimate arrangements, without distancing effects. Highlights: “Goes Without Saying,” “Here on Earth,” “Nobody’s Stranger Anymore” (“Old friends, old lovers/ Some records skip more than others/ It’s the same song we’re all looking for/ To be nobody’s stranger anymore”).



NTJAM ROSIE, The One (Gentle Daze): 3 ½ Stars

The sultry Cameroon-born singer, who’s been living in Holland since age 9, eases into a love- and self-affirming sweet spot between folky pop, jazz and contemporary R&B that should appeal to fans of India Arie and Corinne Bailey Rae. The title tune and “Dear to Me” offer smooth grooves, but acoustic textures define the album, its tracks warmed by guitarist Jorn Ten Hoopen’s fretwork and Bas Kloosterman’s soulful bass. Highlights: “You Build Me Up,” “Reconciliation Song,” the kora-laced “Covenant.”

POPS STAPLES, Don’t Lose This (Anti): 4 Stars

The album title reportedly was gospel/blues legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ advice to daughter Mavis shortly before his death in 2000. Wise man. These 10 uplifting tracks, recorded and produced by Pops and Mavis in 1999, are like a soul-embracing gift teleported over the decades. Jeff Tweedy’s additional, recent production touches are spare and respectful, training focus on Pops’ tremolo-laden guitar and vibey playing, and alchemical harmony blend with daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne. Highlights: “Friendship,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Sweet Home.”

THE WESTIES, West Side Stories (Pauper Sky): ½ Stars

Fans of Chicago Michael McDermott’s late-’90s albums, which straddled folk-rock and adult contemporary pop, should seek out this collaboration with Heather Horton, whose plaintive harmonies strike sparks against McDermott’s rougher tones. More simply produced than those earlier albums, the rootsier instrumentation complements the earthy circumstances of his romantic, been-there-seen-that storytelling and leaves space for his impassioned vocals to resonate. Highlights: “Five Leaf,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Bars” (“All I remember is the feeling/That I wouldn’t make it out of there alive/Because sometimes you need the darkness/In order to ever 

GLEN CAMPBELL, I’ll Be Me (Big Machine):  ½ Stars

This soundtrack to James Keach’s documentary of country-pop great Campbell’s farewell tour opens and closes with the Rhinestone Cowboy’s Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (co-written with Julian Raymond), a bona fide heartbreaker that unearths new ways to express losses inflicted by Alzheimer’s. The remaining eight tracks are a mix of Campbell delivering songs new (“The Long Walk Home”) and old (“Witchita Lineman”) in strong, poignant voice, and sweet performances by daughter Ashley as well as the Band Perry. Campbell’s checkered catalogue’s studded with gems; “Miss You” is one of them.



GRETCHEN PETERS, Blackbirds (Scarlet Letter): 4 stars

The recent Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee follows 2012’s widely applauded “Hello Cruel World” with a set that digs deeper into relatable themes of mortality and loss, with country-folk songs addressing death, disease, distressed veterans and disintegrating physical and emotional environments. That Peters does this without inciting listeners to jump from the nearest high-rise testifies to her craft as well as the sweet grit in her voice and lyrics. Highlights: the achingly gorgeous “Cure for the Pain,” “Pretty Things.” In the round with Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson at McCabe’s in Santa Monica Saturday, Feb. 21.


JOSH NELSON, Exploring Mars (Origin): 3½ stars

Sci-fi author Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets” are two of jazz pianist Nelson’s compass points on this Mars-inspired concept album. Its intriguing quirks may elude non-jazzbos but there are lovely passages, particularly during “Memnonia Quadrangle,” a showcase for guitarist Larry Koonse, and “How You Loved Me on Mars,” a ballad lit up by Kathleen Grace’s clear soprano. Travis Flournoy’s Mars-focused art/video installation will be integrated into Nelson’s shows at Blue Whale in Downtown LA Friday and Saturday.


JJ GREY & MOFRO, Ol’ Glory  (Provogue): 4½ stars
There’s more than a little Wilson Pickett and a swamp-load of Muscle Shoals in the Florida rocker’s sound, plus greasy slide, horns, and lyrics vivid with natural Southern images and his fascination with the spiritual and secular. Funk workouts “Turn Loose” and “Hold on Tight” sweat lust, but Grey’s anchoring theme is honoring the light within and without, most stirringly expressed in the call-and-response title track, “Every Minute” and “Light a Candle” (“We can start over and over again/ Live by our own light, we’re all just candles in the night”).


TRIO CHEMIRANI, Dawâr (Harmonia Mundi): 4 stars

Whereas 2012’s “Invite” was an opportunity for Iranian-born, Paris-based zarb (Persian drum) master Djamchid Chemirani and sons Bijan and Keyvan to provide percussive foundations to beautiful melodies spun by invited guests, “Dawâr” is a resonant celebration of familial and cultural connections that communicates primarily through deep, overlapping rhythms. On some tracks, like “Yâdé Saman,” Djamchid also intones choice phrases of Sufi poetry, underscoring their rhythmic structure against a dramatic background of saz (lute) and daf (Persian frame drum). Those spoken interludes, and santur (hammered dulcimer) passages, make this absorbing conversation more accessible.



FATHER JOHN MISTY, I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop): 4 Stars

Ex-Fleet Foxes drummer J Tillman’s second solo foray is a grandly orchestrated paean to love and ’70s pop that defeats any potential schlock with frank lyrics and quirky flourishes like the mariachi horns in “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” (“I want to take you in the kitchen/ Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”). Standout tracks like “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” and “Strange Encounter” are musical ear candy that offers plenty of sticky food for thought.

RAZIA, Akory (Cumbancha): 3 Stars

The Madagascar artist addresses the effects of climate change and illegal rainforest logging on her island nation, though those themes may not register with listeners unfamiliar with Malagasy or French as readily as the precisely inflected guitar, accordion and lukanga (three-stringed fiddle) melodies spinning atop polyrhythmic percussion. Sounding like a lovely mashup of tropical dance tunes and Parisian café balladry, the music pulses with melancholy even when the guitars, drums, traditional zithers and harmony singers are joining to celebrate, but never roils with enough passion to disturb.

ROBIN MCKELLE & THE FLYTONES, Heart of Memphis (Vizztone/Doxie): 3½ Stars

The New York-raised, jazz-trained McKelle continues the journey into soul she began with 2010’s “Mess Around,” traveling south for more than a token stroll down Beale Street. Two choice covers (a choogling “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and a gutsy reading of OB McClinton’s “Forgetting You”) set the old-school tone, and it’s to McKelle & Co.’s and producer Scott Bomar’s credit that most of her 11 originals sound like they could have been written in the late-’60s/early-’70s era that clearly served as an inspirational touchstone.


Sirens of Song  (East West/Rhino): 3½ Stars

Too bad the UK bandleader’s latest star-studded compilation got lost in the tumult of holiday releases. His orchestra’s charts add zing and big-band swing to some fun, outside-the-box performances by big-piped UK divas including Melanie C, Imelda May, Kylie Minogue, Laura Mvula, Rumer, Emile Sandé, Joss Stone, KT Tunstall and Ruby Turner. Other than cuts from Eartha Kitt and Amy Winehouse (an over-stylized “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and lackluster “Monkey Man”), all the tracks are new.



RHIANNON GIDDENS, Tomorrow is My Turn (Nonesuch): 3½ Stars

The Carolina Chocolate Drops singer/banjoist’s dramatic contributions to the New Basement Tapes project offered a good preview of what she delivers here with producer T-Bone Burnett and a dream team of A-list players. In a century-spanning set that finds gospel and R&B jostling with country, folk and rockabilly, Giddens’ commanding alto finds the sweet spot in songs originally popularized by Patsy Cline, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, among others. Highlights: a funky “Black is the Color,” the jazzy title track, a ’70s-sounding cover of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind.”

HANNI EL KHATIB, Moonlight (Innovative Leisure): 3 Stars

The garage-rocker seems more interested in exploring atmospheres and effects than on previous releases; the raw vitality that crackled through 2013’s Dan Auerbach-produced “Head in the Dirt” has been spiffed up and the still-ubiquitous Black Keys influences (excessive distortion and reverb) are padded with unexpected flourishes (horns, disco synths) though not, unfortunately, fully fleshed lyrics or dynamics. Not the breakthrough sound fans hoped for, but the sound of an artist growing. At the Wiltern in LA with Dr. Dog Feb. 13.

BLACKBERRY SMOKE, Holding All the Roses (Concord/Rounder): 3½ Stars

The hard-touring Atlanta quintet reaches for the arena with producer Brendan O’Brien; their bluegrass-inflected Southern rock may score points with Zac Brown followers, but their ZZ Top-loving concert fans may wish O’Brien had left more dirt in the grooves. The rhythm section’s slamming, but it’s frontman Charlie Starr who brings full-throated thrills during good-time rockers like “Let Me Help You (Find the Door)” and “Rock and Roll Again.” Playing sold-out shows at the Troubadour in West Hollywood Friday and Saturday.

CAITLIN CANTY, Reckless Skyline (self-released): 4 Stars

This Vermont artist’s second studio album is an indie gem produced by Jeffrey Foucault, another singer-songwriter celebrated for his deft evocation of wintry scenes and twisty moods. Canty’s grooving rockers, Appalachian-spirited stompers and steel- and cello-haunted ballads cast hard light on the darker corners of the human psyche, as her chameleonic alto hovers above a tight band that includes drummer Billy Conway, pedal steel player Eric Heywood and pump organist Matt Lorenz. Recommended for fans of Foucault and Ray LaMontagne.




THE DECEMBERISTS, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World 
4 Stars

The celebrated Portland ensemble’s welcome return after a four-year hiatus is a handsomely orchestrated, filler-free 14-track set informed by 1970s rock as well as Celtic folk (“Better Not Wake the Baby”), ’60s girl-group pop (the lusty “Philomena”) and blues (the shivery “Carolina Low”). Frontman Colin Meloy’s well-established eclecticism feels more liberated here, and there’s a grounded joy in the diversely arranged music that’s infectious. Other highlights: “Till the Water’s All Long Gone,” “The Wrong Year.”


THE STRAY BIRDS, Best Medicine  (Yep Roc): 3 Stars

An ear-refreshing acoustic set from Pennsylvania multi-instrumentalists Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charlie Muench, whose harmonies and arrangements should appeal to fans of Gillian Welch and bluegrass-threaded folk. De Vitry and Craven wrote the 12 songs (excepting the jaunty traditionals “Pallet” and “Who’s Gonna Shoe”); standouts include “Feathers and Bone,” whose understated yearning’s drawn out by Craven’s earthy vocal, and de Vitry’s sly title-track ode to brick-and-mortar music stores. At Hotel Café in Hollywood Saturday.


JAMIE SCOTT, My Hurricane  (Virgin): 4 Stars

The 30-year-old Brit’s written songs for Colbie Caillat, Enrique Iglesias and One Direction, but on his solo debut, his introspective lyrics, gracefully ascendant melodies and romantic vocal style more often evoke 1970s icons he’s cited as inspirations (Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell). He favors hooky, anthemic choruses (cue “Unbreakable” and the title track), and overly shellacked production undercuts intimate songs like “Bloodstains & Movies” (featuring Ron Sexsmith) and “Lights,” but this is a promising, curiosity-piquing debut. Highlights: “Gold” (with Christina Perri), piano ballad “Carry You Home,” “Ebony Eyes.”


THE LONE BELLOW, Then Came the Morning  (Descendant): 4 Stars

Having snapped the Americana world to attention with their self-titled 2013 debut and subsequent tours, the Brooklyn-based trio dig deeper for their melodic sophomore effort, inducing chillbumps with tracks like the gospel-y “Watch Over Us.” Their emotional dynamic has often been compared to the Civil Wars, but here, with the National guitarist Aaron Dessner producing and brother Bryce Dessner providing certain arrangements, frontman Zach Williams, guitarist Brian Elmquist and mandolinist Kanene Pipkin rock out a bit more (the squalling “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” “If You Don’t Love Me”), even as they keep those richly textured, signature harmonies front and center.



BETTYE LAVETTE, Worthy (Cherry Red): 4 Stars

Throughout this reteaming with “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” producer Joe Henry, the way the redoubtable soul diva’s searing alto twists syllables and raggedly shades word meanings offers stunning displays of interpretive mastery. Nothing galvanizes like “Love Reign O’er Me” (from 2010’s Grammy-nominated “Interpretations”), but as she reinvents choice material like Mickey Newbury’s “Bless Us All,” Linford Detweiler’s “Undamned,” JH Brown Jr.’s delicious blues “Just Between You and Me and the Wall, You’re a Fool,” Chris Youlden’s “When I Was a Young Girl” and the Beth Neilsen Chapman/Mary Gauthier-penned title track, LaVette also redefines what it means to sing.


DR. DOG, Live at a Flamingo Hotel (Anti): 3 1/2 Stars

The Philly rockers’ albums have always been teasers for their live shows, and this 19-track concert set’s a treat for fans and a solid introduction for newcomers. Recorded at various venues, it crisply captures their classic rock-influenced psychedelic bent, tight musicianship and harmonies, bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman’s everyman swagger, and the background ambiance of handclaps and shout-outs, allowing their rough-edged collective personality to shine through from the Springsteenian “These Days” and “Say Ahhh” through the black-humored “Jackie Wants a Black Eye” and winningly ragged “Lonesome.”


JIM WHITE VS. THE PACKWAY HANDLE BAND, Take It Like a Man (Yep Roc): 3 Stars

Gothic Southern weird has always defined White’s idiosyncratic music, from 1997’s “Wrong-Eyed Jesus” through 2012’s “Where It Hits You.” Here he teams with Athens, Georgia-based Packway Handle Band for an agreeably screwy, high-spirited outing that inspires singalongs and bluegrass banjo two-stepping with trombone — though “Jim 3:16” (“A bar is just a church where they serve beer”) and “Sinner!” should please White’s cult following. Other highlights: the infectious “Not a Song,” “Paranormal Girlfriend.”,


BELLE & SEBASTIAN, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador): 4 Stars

Working with Animal Collective producer Ben Allen, the veteran Scottish pop band veer far from the folkier simplicity of their late-’90s albums, filling their sonic space with reverbed vocals, synthesizers, electronic effects and disco beats. That last is a surprising element, particularly in contrast to the lightness and immediacy of 2010’s “Write About Love” and frontman Stuart Murdoch’s thoughtful lyrics. But the combination makes for an urbane, unpredictable pop set. Highlights: “Allie,” “The Party Line,” “The Cat With the Cream,” “Perfect Couples.”



KYSHONA ARMSTRONG, Go (self-released): 3 1/2 Stars

The South Carolina music therapist turned singer-songwriter calls her melodic tunes “acoustic soul,” and that’s as true a tag as any, notwithstanding the electric rhythms powering tracks like opener “Can You Feel It,” “The Other Woman” and the roiling “Cornelius Dupree.” Throughout this tastefully produced album, Armstrong nimbly weaves blues, country, gospel jazz, pop, R&B and soul threads with empowering messages and her earthy vocals. Highlights: “Can You Feel It,” “Riverside,” bluesy confessional “The Light.” Should appeal to fans of India.Arie and Ruthie Foster.


JUSTIN KAUFLIN, Dedication (Jazz Village): 4 Stars

Recently introduced to national audiences via “Keep On Keepin’ On,” a documentary about his mutually supportive friendship with aging jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, youthful pianist Kauflin’s second album — his first under Quincy Jones’ aegis — is a sophisticated instrumental set. Solidly supported in trio and quartet settings by bassist Christopher Smith, drummer Billy Williams and guitarists Matt Stevens and Etan Haziza, Kauflin’s confident but not overly showy, emotional but not sentimental. The rhythmic pace picks up toward album’s end, but the most dynamic moments come during ruminative tracks like inspired setpiece “For Clark,” “No Matter” and “Thank You Lord.”


KAT DAHLIA, My Garden (Epic): 3 1/2 Stars

The Miami-raised, New York-based singer/rapper juggles catchy party tunes with blunt romantic confrontations and existential questions, all delivered in a growly alto that occasionally evokes Amy Winehouse as well as Melissa Etheridge. It’s gruffly expressive and singular, but what ultimately grounds this promising set is the earned wisdom in lyrics about self-medicating, struggling to connect and survive. Highlights: “Crazy,” “Just Another Dude,” “Mirrors” (“We’re all just chasing a dream in the land of the free/ While we’re paying a fee to stay on this concrete/ Well I don’t know the price of your roof /But the first of the month we all pay our dues”).


KASSÉ MADY DIABATÉ, Kiriké (Six Degrees): 4 Stars

It’s a tribute to the celebrated Malian griot’s quietly commanding baritone that he communicates the emotional core of metaphoric songs like “Sadjo” and “Douba Diabira” despite language barriers. Cellist/producer Vincent Segal, ngoni player Makan “Badje” Tounkara and balafonist Lansiné Kouyaté craft ear-soothing settings around Diabaté’s cascading vocals, which compel you to listen even if you don’t understand Bambara. Recommended for fans of Toumani Diabaté, Salif Keita and Boubacar Traoré.



THE TOURÉ-RAICHEL COLLECTIVE, The Paris Session (Cumbancha): 4 Stars

Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and Israeili pop keyboardist Raichel’s studio reunion yields a set more rocking and a jazzier-sounding than 2012’s outstanding, mostly improvised “The Tel Aviv Session.” Having since played many concerts together, they are even more closely attuned to one another’s musical instincts; that, combined with the inclusion of more proper songs and vocals, gives this set more cohesive definition. When Raichel’s sonorous piano supports and responds to Touré’s lightning-quick, arpeggiated on tracks like “Tidhar,” “L’amour” and “Diame,” the chemistry is electric.

BRANFORD MARSALIS, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral (Okeh): 4 Stars

San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral’s magnificent acoustics amplify the full tones of Marsalis’ alto, soprano and tenor saxes in this 2012 solo concert as he transforms Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” into a bluesy midnight meditation, elegantly transposes Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for Oboe to tenor saxophone, and offers a variety of improvisations. It’s a tasteful, stylishly eclectic set capped with a touch of pop sentiment: a sincerely melodic reading of  “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” aka as the theme song for “The Carol Burnett Show.”

KIMM ROGERS, Where the Pavement Grows (Kimbocats): 3 ½ Stars

A welcome return from the reclusive San Diego singer-songwriter, who seemingly vanished after recording 1990’s keeper “Soundtrack of My Life” and 1992’s “Two Sides” for Island. Similarly comprised of poignant, candidly observed ballads and feisty pop-rockers, this Julian Coryell-produced collection pearls together 10 knowing portraits of human nature and self-reflection. Highlights: “Gravity” (“There’s pie in the sky and there’s dirt on the ground/ There’s even hope for happiness but it always comes down”), “Rain,” “The Ballad of Moon Valley Road.” Recommended for fans of Lucinda Williams and Jimmer Podrasky.

D.A. FOSTER, The Real Thing (VizzTone): 3 ½ Stars

The veteran club owner and talent booker demonstrates he learned a thing or three from the blues greats with whom he rubbed elbows over the years. Smoothly produced by Taj Mahal drummer Tony Braunagel and Bonnie Raitt keyboardist Mike Finnigan, Foster’s ear-pleasingly rugged baritone fits comfortably in horn- and organ-greased arrangements of soul and R&B nuggets by the likes of Brook Benton, Eddie Hinton, Don Roby, Jerry Williams and Bill Withers. Should appeal to fans of Delbert McClinton and Curtis Salgado.



D’ANGELO & THE VANGUARD, Black Messiah (RCA/Sony): 4 Stars

Edgier and funkier than the stoned soul of his career-making 2000 statement “Voodoo,” this socially conscious follow-up finds the reclusive neo-soul crooner contemplating the personal and political with drummers Questlove and James Gadson, sublimely funky bassist Pino Palladino and co-lyricist Kendra Foster. His silky falsetto glides around artful sonic embroidery (feedback, handclaps, heartbeat-emulating bass beats, horns, looped vocals, piano, Spanish whispers and guitar, whistles) that rewards repeat listens. Highlights: “The Charade” (“All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ’Stead we only got outlined in chalk”), “Prayer,” “Sugah Daddy,” the Prince-evoking “Betray My Heart.”

JON BYRD, Route 41 (Longleaf Pine): 3 1/2 Stars

A damn fine craftsman in his own right, Nashville-based Byrd explores the tunebags of songwriter pals who’ve inspired him, backed by veteran sidemen Steve Conn (keyboards) and Fats Kaplin (fiddle, pedal steel). The literate intelligence that imbues Byrd’s own writing illuminates his tasty interpretations throughout this warmly produced set. Highlights include his personal readings of Peter Cooper and Baker Maultsby’s “Wine,” Shannon and Adam Wright’s “Knew All Along,” and especially Davis Raines and Pamela Jackson’s “Going to Montgomery.”

DINA REGINE, Right On, Alright (self-released): 3 Stars

That DJ and photographer Regine is also an undersung songwriter isn’t that surprising, considering the multitude of artists who express themselves in multiple mediums. But her smooth take on retro soul with a rootsy pop twist should appeal to club dancers and Americana fans alike, from the Stonesy groove of “Fences” to the Stax-like stomper “Dial My Number” and country-dusted “Far Gone” (“Maybe I was a little blind/ We all lose our minds sometimes/ It’s tough”).

THE MUSIC OF NASHVILLE, Original Soundtrack Season 3, Volume 1
(Big Machine): 
3 1/2 Stars

Another solid collection from the ABC drama that reconfirms its most important character is its music. Vocally challenged lead Connie Britton remains the weakest singer, but costar Chip Esten scores with a simple ballad he co-wrote with Deana Carter, “I Know How to Love You Now.” Kudos to producer Buddy Miller and music supervisors Frankie Pine and Mandi Collier for spotlighting songwriters Rodney Crowell (“Good Woman – Good to Me,” ably delivered by Will Chase), Sarah Siskind and Julie Lee (the bluesy “Carry On,” performed by Claire Bowen and Mykelti Williamson) and Michael Logan, Nicole Johnson and Sarah Emily Parish (“When You Open Your Eyes,” a sweet Bowen-Sam Palladio duet).



MARY J. BLIGE, The London Sessions (Capitol): 4 Stars

Consistently intriguing artists continually seek out new challenges — and Blige is nothing if not intriguing. Here, the hip-hop/soul diva smartly leaps to London, where admiring UK artists Sam Smith, Emili Sandé, Naughty Boy and Disclosure offer dramatic, punchy material and magnetic house grooves. With longtime producer Rodney Jerkins onboard, the satisfying rhythmic range extends from snappy single “Therapy” to dance-floor workout “My Loving” to the acoustic guitar-flavored plaint “When You’re Gone.” The vinyl-crackling “Whole Damn Year” gives Blige the juiciest meat to chew, and she makes it a stunning meal (“It took a whole damn year to repair my body … gonna take a long, long year for me to touch somebody”).,

HORSE FEATHERS, So It is With Us (Kill Rock Stars): 3½ Stars

Justin Ringle leads his Portland, Oregon-based ensemble in lighter directions than his four previous, somberly beautiful folk albums. Standout tracks “Why Do I Try” and “Middle Testament” excavate fear and doubt (“Seems to me that your prayers became a vise/ Seems to me Jesus Christ was like a knife”). But mostly Ringle & Co. find joy in their guitars, drums, piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin and harmonies, reaffirming the simple thrill of feeling yourself inhale and exhale. At the Satellite in Silver Lake Friday.

T SISTERS, Kindred Lines (Spruce and Maple)3½ Stars

Produced and mentored by Laurie Lewis, who knows a thing or three about songwriting and harmony, Bay Area sisters Chloe, Erika and Rachel Tietjen’s clean, bright sound and rhythmic verve have elicited comparisons to the Andrews Sisters, if they’d been reincarnated as harmonizing twentysomethings with a yen for bluegrass. Unexpected flourishes (saxophone smoking through the bluesy “Woo Woo,” jazzy a cappella singing for “The Wind”) suggest an original vision worth watching. At Caltech’s Beckman Institute Auditorium Saturday.

SIMO LAGNAWI, The Gnawa Berber (Riverboat/World Music Network)3 Stars

The Moroccan guembri (three-stringed lute) virtuoso celebrates his Berber heritage with another set of his signature gnawa fusion. Rooted in trance-like grooves and sometimes frantic beats pounded out on krakebs (percussion), gnawa is intrinsically dance-oriented, but the London-based Lagnawi infuses compelling tracks like “Dounia,” “Sma” and the Appalachian-flavored “Sahara Wiya” with Western instruments (banjo, fiddle, flute) and a little melodic sensibility that helps shape the them into more broadly enticing invitations.,



SYLEENA JOHNSON, Chapter 6: Couples Therapy (Blakbyrd): 3 1/2 Stars

“I’m too strong to be blinded by pride,” the “R&B Divas” veteran declares on “Fool’s Gold,” featuring fellow “Diva” Leela James. Johnson lays out learned wisdom throughout the latest installment of her musical chronicle of life and relationships; the hooky “Unstoppable” edges into empowerment-anthem territory, but her statements of truth have more of a cumulative effect. It’s refreshing to hear an R&B singer of Johnson’s caliber untrammeled by raps or samples, but it would be gratifying to hear her with live musicians, rather than electronic beats that undercut her lustrous vocal warmth.

SALLY JAYE, Too Many Heartaches, Pt. 1 (Entropy): 3 1/2 Stars

Now ensconced in Nashville after many years in LA, Jaye reconnects with her Southern roots on this Josh Day-produced EP showcasing her melodically engaging, character-driven stories. Hotel Café fans should recall and welcome “Maggie the Superstar” and “Shari,” featuring Ladies Gun Club partner Sarah Roberts’ Dolly Parton-like harmonies and a sweet duet with hubby Brian Wright on his “Paper Mache.” The yearning centerpiece is “All I Ask For”; when Jaye duskily intones, “I don’t mind if I’m last in line for sunny days and pretty things, babies that don’t cry/ I just want my messed-up boy to be alright,” you feel the weight of long-repressed frustration.

THE CONTENDERS, Meet the Contenders (Bluff Island): 4 Stars

Songwriter pals Jay Nash and Josh Day reportedly bonded over mutual love of whiskey and The Band, which makes sense after hearing the choogling grooves of “Long Way Down” and “Maybe, Katy” and soulful ballads like the eerie, steel-washed “Lincoln, 1958.” There’s a feel-good appeal in their limber harmonies and easy, percussive drive that should appeal to fans of singer-songwriters and jam-band fans alike. Levon would be pleased. Highlights: “Lincoln, 1958,” “Back in Time,” “Oogly Boogly.”

SWAMP DOGG, The White Man Made Me Do It (Alive): 3 1/2 Stars

The cult hero, né Jerry Williams Jr., returns with more of his singular Southern soul, juggling guitar- and horn-greased plaints (“Let Me Be Wrong”) with surprising standards (Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Lieber & Stoller’s “Smokey Joe’s Café”) and bawdy tunes and streetwise social commentary (“Prejudice is Alive and Well”). Williams may be preaching to the choir with funk stompers like “Where is Sly,” but it’s one enjoyable sermon.,



SON LITTLE, Things I Forgot (Anti): 3 1/2 stars

The ex-Angeleno’s sandpapered R&B tenor nimbly glides across classic soul grooves, trip-hop beats, blues and rock guitar riffs, persuasively pleading his romantic case over a gospel-y percussion almost obscuring dark undercurrents in “The River” (“Want you so bad I had to break your mind/ Give me your love, baby, all your time”). Little, né Aaron Livingston, is even more compelling referencing “John and Bobby” and “sex and candy” in the gritty “Cross My Heart,” and when imploring the aching “Joy”: “Where have you gone?”

CURTIS MCMURTRY, Respectable Enemy (Berkalin): 3 stars

The 23-year-old Texan proves he’s inherited dad James’ and grandfather Larry’s bent for dark scenarios, cynical characters and wordplay (“I’ve found myself a hole to hide away in/ I’ll keep the barman company/ Until the devil comes for me/ I don’t believe in Jesus or salvation”). Smartly arranged beds of guitars, violin, cello and occasional sax or trumpet support his dry baritone in a lyric-driven set highlighted by “Ghost in My Bed,” “Whiskey Sweat” and dad James’ “Gulf Road.” At Hotel Café in Hollywood Sunday, Nov. 23.

DEREK THOMAS & SKYLINE DRIVE, Beyond the Trestles (Soul Water): 4 stars

Beautifully atmospheric guitar work by Thomas and Randy Mitchell, together with Thomas’ melodic, deftly arranged songs and yearning rasp, make this an ear-pleaser likely to attract fans of contemporary Americana and “Harvest”-era Neil Young. Arcing guitars and production sheen boost the anthemic pulse of standout tracks “Honey Whiskey” and “Rubber Bullets.” Other highlights: “Ring Them Bells,” “God Isn’t Watching” (“All the luck in the world that you hoped to find/ Went jumping off a nickel to get to a dime/ Was spilled down the street, swirls in the air for someone else to find”).

VARIOUS ARTISTS, The One-Derful! Collection (One-Derful!): 4 stars

Some names may ring the bell of listener familiarity — Otis Clay, Betty Everett, the Sharpees, the Five Du-Tones’ “Shake a Tailfeather” — but most of the artists on this excellent compilation of 1960s-era Chicago soul and funk passed into obscurity before grabbing pop music’s brass ring. That’s no reflection on the ear-grabbing hooks, danceable tunes and rousing, gospel-trained singing showcased on the first in a planned six-disc reissue set from the One-Derful!, Mar-v-Lus, M-Pac!, Halo, Midas and Toddlin’ Town labels. Recommended for fans of Motown, Dap-tone, and Stones Throw’s “Funky 16 Corners.”



JENI & BILLY’S BIG PICNIC BAND, Picnic in the Sky (self-released): 3 Stars

A disarming set of Appalachian-dusted ballads and story songs inspired by family, historical narratives, urban street scenes and, improbably enough, Victorian-era novels. Nicely produced by Dave Way and Dillon O’Brian, it catches Jeni Hankins’ mountain-style soprano and guitarist/banjoist Billy Kemp in relaxed musical dialogue with an ace crew of LA players, as if at a country house party. Highlights: “Reckoning Day,” “Good,” “The Old Hotel.” At Caltech Saturday.

SAINT SAVIOUR, In the Seams (Surface Area): 4 Stars

Donning the guise of her musical alter ego, Becky Jones delivers a sophomore solo album that is, in a word, gorgeous. Delicate but never precious, the ex-Groove Armada vocalist’s airy soprano floats around her elegant keyboard figures, producer/guitarist Bill Ryder Jones’ sympatico fretwork and suitably minimal backing from the Manchester Camerata Orchestra in a contemplative set that plays out like a wintry dream. Should appeal to fans of early Goldfrapp and Julianna Barwick. Highlights: “Nobody Died,” “Let It Go,” “St. Malo.”

ERIC BIBB, Blues People (Stony Plain): 4 Stars

Arriving in tandem with last week’s contentious election, the blues troubadour’s latest album feels prescient in its calls for tolerance and unity. The inspirational strains of gospel that have always infused Bibb’s music are even more smoothly integral here, whether he’s dreaming big (the slide-greased “Pink Dream Cadillac”) or choking out “Rosewood,” whose lushly beautiful strings make its violent tale more harrowing. Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Heard the Angels Singin’” is reprised with rousing support from Blind Boys of Alabama; other guests include Ruthie Foster (a funky “Dream Catchers”), Taj Mahal and producer/soulful vocalist Glenn Scott, whose “Chain Reaction” is a highlight.

ANI DIFRANCO, Allergic to Water (Righteous Babe): 4 Stars

There’s a lot of quiet groove in the prototypical DIY artist’s 20th studio album, fleshed out with customary finesse by bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, plus guest keyboardist Ivan Neville, violinist Jenny Scheinman and DiFranco’s eloquent fingerpicking. Songs like the title track and “Happy All the Time” pack big themes (environmental ruin, finding peace amidst struggle) in conversational phrases (“I know pain is a teacher to be welcomed but not feared/ Alas pain is your ally so embrace it while it’s here”) that continue resonating after the album gracefully winds down.



EMMA DONOVAN & THE PUTBACKS, Dawn (Hope Street): 4 Stars

An Australian sleeper album that should beckon stateside fans of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Donovan’s warm, soulful tones and vintage Rhodes and electric solos by keyboardist Simon Mavin and guitarist Tom Martin make slow-burn groovers like “Mother” and the title track feel like velvet-lined shuttles to the ’70s. Martin’s tasteful restraint echoes Donovan’s and paradoxically fuels the funk and drive of “Daddy” and opening anthem “Black Woman”; rather than cram the space with histrionics, they allow drummer Rory McDougall and bassist Mick Meagher’s rhythms to gradually dominate the arrangement like a rising pulse.

THE TWILIGHT SAD, Nobody Wants to Be Here
|and Nobody Wants to Leave
(Fat Cat): 3 1/2

The Scottish indie-rockers haven’t forsaken their dark twists of thought — what else to expect from a crew who took their name from a Wilfred Owen war poem — but they continue to push beyond their shoegaze beginnings with driving pop-rockers like “I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want” and “Drown So I Can Watch.” Frontman James Graham’s thick, emotive brogue gives human dimension to metallic settings, particularly during “Sometimes I Wish I Could Fall Sleep,” where his voice reverberates like a lost dream in a graveyard. At the Fonda in Hollywood Friday.

SHAKEY GRAVES, And the War Came (Dualtone): 4 Stars

Actor/musician Alejandro Rose-Garcia expands the one-man-band concept that made 2011’s “Roll the Bones” a noteworthy splash in the Americana pool, recruiting drummer Chris Boosahda and harmony singer Esmé Patterson, among others. When his scruffy baritone wraps around Patterson’s smooth soprano during the tongue-in-cheek “Dearly Departed,” their vocal chemistry roils in heated contrast to the lean intensity of soul-searchers “Hard Wired,” “Only Son” and the synth-boosted “Family and Genus.” At the El Rey in LA Tuesday (Monday show sold out).

THE OUTTA SITES, Rock & Roll Dance Party (self-released): 3 Stars

The title says it all. The ’60s-loving foursome dishes out high-spirited salutes to the joys of feet-beating dancing, “Good, Good Lovin’” (a surf-happy take on James Brown) and eating “Peanut Butter” (a fun cover of a Marathons chestnut) over an infectious old-school rock ‘n’ roll beat. Heads up to garage rock and Brit Invasion fans. At the Barkley in South Pasadena Friday.



GARY CLARK JR., Gary Clark Jr. Live (Warner Bros.): 4 stars

The visceral excitement generated by the Texas guitarist’s 2011 “Bright Lights” EP heightened expectations for his 2012 full-length “Blak and Blu,” which turned out to be a maddeningly uneven teaser. Clark’s impassioned, often tantalizing fusion of blues, hip-hop, jazz, rock and soul is best experienced live, and this crisply recorded concert set is a seriously gratifying introduction to his oeuvre and fuzz-toned style. This isn’t blues by rote; Hendrix and Stevie Ray references abound, but it roils with blood, libido and broad vision. At the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park Saturday.

SEAN COSTELLO, In the Magic Shop (Vizztone): 4 stars

Until his tragic 2008 death, prolific 28-year-old guitarist Sean Costello was heralded as a brave young hope for blues, garnering uncommonly supportive reviews for five solo albums as well as his full-bodied tone and incisive fretwork backing artists like Susan Tedeschi and Ollabelle. This previously unreleased, Memphis-vibed 2005 recording showcases his gutsy old-school-style vocals, in an eminently listenable blues-soul set balancing revealing-in-retrospect originals with grooving chestnuts by Rod Stewart, Fenton Robinson and Bobby Womack. All album sales profits benefit Sean Costello Fund for Bipolar Research.

LORI MCKENNA, Numbered Doors (Hoodie): 4 stars

The Massachusetts singer-songwriter’s most consistently powerful album since 2007’s Tim McGraw-produced “Unglamorous” is a relatable, earth-toned portrait of people struggling to endure — either alone (“Three Kids, No Husband,” co-written with Brandy Clark) or, more often, in contentious relationships (“The Time I’ve Wasted,” the beautifully metaphoric “Rose of Jericho”). Acoustic arrangements complement the material’s intimate nature, allowing McKenna’s unvarnished, heart-in-throat contralto to fill the space as she bites into melodies and lyrics freighted with emotion and surprising twists (“How could a friend like you be the stranger in his kiss”).

THE BUDOS BAND, Burnt Offering (Daptone): 4 stars

The widely respected New York 10-man band pushes the already elastic borders of its Afrobeat-funk fusion sound to welcome in heavy elements of psychedelic rock and classic metal. “Aphasia” sounds like it time-traveled to a Pentagram session circa 1985; “Magus Mountain” collects acoustic and electric guitar solos, slamming drums and squawling horns around an elongated, magnetic groove; “Tomahawk” pushes the horn section and polyrhythmic drumbeats aside to make way for a hypnotic saxophone solo. It rocks, grooves and upends expectations.



TONY ALLEN, Film of Life (Jazz Village): 4½ stars

The Africa 70 drummer’s 10th solo album is a persuasive, soulful testament to the almighty power of groove, melding the passionate Afrobeat he forged with Fela Kuti with jazz, pop and a touch of social commentary (the refugee-focused “Boat Journey”). Damon Albarn is among his collaborators here (co-writing and singing the melancholy ballad “Go Back”), along with Nigerian-American singer Kuku and vocal duo Adunni & Nefretiti, but no one upstages Allen as he smoothly shifts rhythms throughout this funky, instrumental-dominated set. Highlights: “Moving On,” “Koko Dance,” “African Man.”


THE HELLO STRANGERS, The Hello Strangers (IMI): 3½ stars

Pennsylvania-based sisters Brechyn Chace and Larissa Chace Smith call their music “Original Pennsyltucky Fried Sister Folk,” an apt description of this solid, harmony-laden album, which twines classic country style (think Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells) with contemporary songwriter sensibilities (a la Shawn Colvin and Mindy Smith). They augment their songs with a haunting rendition of Jim Lauderdale’s “What You Don’t Know,” with Lauderdale himself joining the gospel-tinged harmonies, and a sweetly nostalgic stroll through the Doris Day hit “Que Sera, Sera.” 


NEW AMERICAN FARMERS, The Farmacology Sessions  (Big Barncat): 4 stars

In a smart, dynamic set noticeably influenced by the Byrds and Grateful Dead, Paul Knowles and Nicole Storto — formerly known as Mars, Arizona — wax eloquent on vast themes without resorting to bombast, instead conveying the intimate costs of environmental destruction and Big Pharma run amok, with electric support from guest guitarists Chuck Prophet and Dave Zirbel. Original arrangements of the Alarm, Monkees and Hank Williams stake out their position in pop-Americana terrain. Recommended for fans of I See Hawks in LA and Gram Parsons. 


LISA MILLS, I’m Changing  (Mills Bluz): 3 stars

The Alabama-based singer “reclaims” a 2005 recording with help from engineer Trina Shoemaker, veteran rock and blues sidemen, and some new originals showcasing a polished, Joplin-esque voice. Her material’s less distinctive than her affectingly dexterous vocals, but the arrangements breathe with dynamic force, whether she’s transforming Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” into a slow, slithering blues, confessing the title track over acoustic guitar and fiddle, or growling her testimony during Rev. Robert Wilkins’ “I Wish I Was in Heaven Sittin’ Down” as guitarist Corky Hughes takes it way down South with wicked slide work. 




HOZIER, Hozier (Rubyworks/Columbia): 4 Stars

The Irish troubadour follows two buzz-stirring EPs with this simply produced full-length, signaling old-school R&B, soul and gospel influences with opening tracks “Take Me to Church,” “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” and “Jackie and Wilson” before expanding into more personal singer-songwriter fare. His limber, John Legend-meets-Van Morrison tenor ias caressed by Karen Cowley’s silky harmony on “In a Week”; other highlights include the bluesy “To Be Alone,” “It Will Come Back” and “Foreigner’s God,” though there isn’t a bum track here.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither3 1/2 Stars

Blues-folk singer-songwriter Chris Smither gets a classy 70th birthday salute from fellow troubadours including Peter Case, Mary Gauthier, Patty Larkin, Josh Ritter, Loudon Wainwright and Dave Alvin, who sets the tone with his thoughtful arrangement of the title track; everyone digs into Smither’s philosophically literate poetry without copping his signature fingerpicking style. Highlights: Aoife O’Donovan & Stephanie Coleman’s shivery, violin-colored dance through “Small Revelations,” and Bonnie Raitt’s slide-drenched stroll through concert favorite “Love Me Like a Man.” Smither performs at McCabe’s in Santa Monica Friday.

LAURIE LEWIS & KATHY KALICK, Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray
(Spruce and Maple): 
4 Stars

Northern California bluegrass legends Vern Williams & Ray Park made precious few recordings, but left an influential imprint via better-known acolytes like Herb Pedersen, as well as Lewis and Kalick — who’ve built similarly well respected careers beyond mainstream folk and bluegrass. In strong voice throughout this generous 18-track set, their taut harmonies faithfully suggest V&R’s keen edge and drive, with energetic support from mandolinist Tom Rozum and banjoist Patrick Sauber. Highly recommended for California acoustic music fans. Lewis plays Caltech Saturday.

AURELIO, Lándini (Real World): 4 Stars

Since Andy Palacio’s death in 2008, Honduras-raised Aurelio Martinez has assumed the mantle of Garifuna cultural ambassador, faithfully representing those Caribbean communities still enduring along the Belize-to-Nicaragua coast. This collection of traditional Garifuna paranda tunes and originals co-written with his mother Maria is mellower than 2011’s uplifting “Laru Beya”; a melancholy undertow ripples beneath celebratory guitars and percussion throughout danceable songs like “Sananaru,” “Chichanbara,” the beautifully layered “Nitu” and yearning title track, with harmonies rising like a supportive tide behind Martinez’s fervent vocal and Guayo Cedeño’s expressive fretwork.



BAHAMAS, Bahamas is Afie (Brushfire): 4 Stars

Ex-Feist guitarist Afie Jurvanen’s third album as Bahamas is a quiet conversation between a man and his guitar, with unobtrusive cello, percussion, piano and harmonies serving as judicious punctuation. His tuneful pop melodies are economically expressed; the spaciousness of his arrangements makes songs like the moving closer “All I’ve Ever Known” even more intimate. Highlights: the soulful jam “All the Time,” joyful “Stronger Than That,” slow-grooving “Nothing to Me Now.” At the Roxy in West Hollywood Friday.


YOUNG REBEL SET, Crocodile  (New West): 3 1/2 Stars

A la the Gaslight Anthem and the Hold Steady, this British indie-rock quintet’s music invites rounds of namecheck-the-influences (Elvis Costello, the Pogues, Bruce Springsteen), and how listeners like their classic rock may determine their response to the band’s sophomore album. Now getting a wide US release, it’s a solid set of melodic, folk-splashed rockers and occasionally angry ruminations on personal failings, romantic mistakes and the tug-of-war between responsibility and release, with Matthew Chipchase’s ear-friendly rasp fronting a straightforward guitars-bass-drums lineup. Highlights: “Show Your Feathers & Run,” “Unforgiven,” “Berlin Nights.” At the Echo in Echo Park Monday.


CAPTAIN PLANET, Esperanto Slang  (Bastard Jazz): 3 1/2 Stars

A worthy successor to 2011’s ingratiating full-length “Cookin’ Gumbo,” this nicely varied 12-track set likewise processes global beats through electronic filters and warms them with vocalists like Chico Mann and Argentina’s La Yegros. The New York deejay finds common ground for Afrobeat, Brazilian samba, hip-hop and reggae rhythms, resulting in set pieces like the horn-pumped “Enter the Esperanto” and “Safaru,” with Sudanese singer Alsarah backed by flute, organ, sax, trumpet and a stomping rhythm section. Other highlights: “Un Poquito Más,” the oud-defined “S.S. Esfahan.”


DOUG SEEGERS, Going Down to the River (Rounder): 4 Stars

James Brown influenced Bradley’s style, but the raw grit he invests in ’60s-style soul laments like “Let Love Stand a Chance,” “Crying in the Chapel” and the psychedelic funk of “Confusion” are drawn from his own 64 years of experience. Bradley and savvy producer/co-songwriter Thomas Brenneck lighten the mood from 2011’s “No Time for Dreaming”; there’s cathartic release in the finger-snapping “You Put the Flame on Me.” Still, Bradley’s life story and genuinely moving vocals are the visceral draw of this handsomely produced set, and he doesn’t disappoint.



VARIOUS ARTISTS, Peru Bravo: Funk, Soul & Psych From Peru’s Radical Decade (Tiger’s Milk): 4 Stars

1968-1974 Peru’s political upheaval was mirrored by its roiling underground music scene, as students and young musicians immersed themselves in American and UK rock, surf, soul and especially funk. Most of these bands flamed out fast (a la Barbès’s Chicha Libre releases), but Los Holy’s, Jeriko and Los Texao recorded earnest, Latin-seasoned versions of the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and Steppenwolf’s “Sookie Sookie” before disappearing. Jean Paul “El Troglodita” is well-schooled in early Chicago, while tracks from Cacique, Traffic Sound and Laghonia sound like Santana outtakes. Heads-up, funk and garage-rock fans.

SHELBY LYNNE, I Am Shelby Lynne Deluxe Edition (Rounder): 4½ Stars

Lynne was six albums into her critically respected career when she won a Best New Artist Grammy for commercial breakthrough “I Am Shelby Lynne,” wherein the mercurial contralto embraced her Southern soul roots and earthy, uncompromising confessional style. This remastered 15th-anniversary reissue augments those 10 songs with a pristinely recorded 2000 House of Blues concert DVD, which documents Lynne and a tight band rocking the material, including the aching “Miss You, Sissy” (for sister Allison Moorer). That’s one of six previously unreleased songs included with the reissued album, which has retained its slow-burn intensity thanks to Lynne’s tough-tender phrasing, Bill Bottrell’s sophisticated production and their leanly crafted songs. At Largo at the Coronet in LA Wednesday.

ROB STONE, Gotta Keep Rollin’ (Vizztone): 4 Stars

Greasy, old school-style Chicago blues performed with vigor and taste by veteran harmonica pro Stone and a jumping crew who know their Willie Dixon from their Muddy Waters. Their ingratiating swagger and soul are boosted by saxophonist Eddie Shaw (“Anything Can Happen”) and guitarist John Primer (“Cold Winter Day”). Other highlights: “Wait Baby,” “Strollin’ With Sasquatch,” “Wired and Tired.” At Record Parlor in Hollywood Saturday.

JOE FLETCHER, You’ve Got the Wrong Man (Wrong Reasons): 3½ Stars

R&B, gospel, Cuban and New Orleans rhythms twine through the onetime Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies frontman’s latest solo album, blazing with horns, organ, guitars and harmonies. Farris’ soul-shouter vocals take “Jonah and the Whale” to church on Beale Street and saunter through the French Quarter with “Sparrow” before transforming Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” into a formidable gospel confession and testifying to the “Power of Love.” It’s a simple, compassionate message, befitting the music’s grooving uplift.



LUCINDA WILLIAMS, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20): 3½ stars

Minefields of the heart remain the Grammy-winning songwriter’s preferred topic, and she returns to its knife-edged duality (“Love can never live without the pain of loss”) throughout this generous double-disc set. “Compassion” (a spare adaption of dad Miller Williams’ poem) signals her mindset as she slides between emotional landscapes (“It’s Gonna Rain,” “Standing Right By Each Other,” a slow-grooving cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia”) and tough assessments of the world (“West Memphis,” “Everything But the Truth”) in muscular, blues- and soul-dipped country-rock settings. Headlining Way Over Yonder festival on Santa Monica Pier Friday.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Real World 25 (Real World): 4½ stars

When Peter Gabriel released 1989’s Grammy-winning “Passion,” he was still soaring from the international success of 1986’s “So” and his then-fledgling Real World label was a pet showcase for revered Pakistani Qawwalli singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Twenty-five years later, this artfully packaged retrospective validates the label’s tastemaking efforts to introduce audiences to soulful, genre-spanning music from around the globe. Khan, Gabriel, Afro Celt Sound System, Ananda Shankar Experience, Joseph Arthur, Big Blue Ball, Blind Boys of Alabama, Dub Colossus, Juju, Little Axe, Thomas Mapfumo, 9Bach, Ayub Ogada, Portico Quartet and Papa Wemba are some of the artists featured on the three discs, the last comprised of fan-selected tracks.

BLAKE MILLS, Heigh Ho (Record Collection/Verve): 4 stars

The restless guitarist spreads his songwriting wings on his sophomore album, a tasty mix of singer-songwriter pop, moody fretwork, odd time signatures and introspective lyrics that find him reaching for romantic truth while ’fessing up to character failings that keep it elusive. Guests Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, Mike Elizondo, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench and Don Was enhance the musical atmosphere without spoiling its intimacy. Highlights: “Seven,” “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” “Just Out of View,” “Half Asleep.”

MIKE FARRIS, Shine for All the People (Compass): stars

R&B, gospel, Cuban and New Orleans rhythms twine through the onetime Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies frontman’s latest solo album, blazing with horns, organ, guitars and harmonies. Farris’ soul-shouter vocals take “Jonah and the Whale” to church on Beale Street and saunter through the French Quarter with “Sparrow” before transforming Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” into a formidable gospel confession and testifying to the “Power of Love.” It’s a simple, compassionate message, befitting the music’s grooving uplift.



LERA LYNN, The Avenues (Sands Foley): 3½ stars

The Nashville singer-songwriter’s shows have generated buzz for a few years, and this vocal-focused set captures some of the cause. Recorded with LA-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Josh Grange, its dreamy, Patty Griffin-meets-Cowboy Junkies sound complements Lynn’s lyrical ruminations on love. Highlights: “Out to Sea” (“The fragile line on which we dance/ The thread of life left up to chance/ …They say that life is more than what we see/ And surely in death that too will be”), “I’m Your Fool.” At the Mint in LA Wednesday.

MOON HOOCH, This is Cave Music (Hornblow/Palmetto): 3½ stars

If you liked Morphine — in particular, their use of saxophone in gritty rock settings — then give this two-saxophones-and-drums New York trio some time and attention. More frenetic and leaner than their indie-rock forebears, they toss in a few lyrically simple tunes (“Rainy Day,” the synth-padded “Mountain Song”) whose vocal melodies are more palatable to the ear, though the shifting time signatures and changeups of “Bari 3” and “EWI” better typify the challenges — and rewards — of this urgent, mostly instrumental set.

YOUN SUN NAH, Lento (Hub): 3½ stars

The Korean-born, Paris-polished soprano’s silken tone’s well served by spacious arrangements on her latest album, recorded in Sweden with longtime guitarist Ulf Wakenius and a stellar European combo. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” sounds forced, but Nah’s stairstep intonation and precise phrasing on more deliberately paced tracks like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” “Soundless Bye” and bassist/cellist Lars Danielsson’s “Waiting” should appeal to fans of vocal stylists like Peggy Lee and even Alison Krauss. Nah and Wakenius play Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo Saturday.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the USA
(Lightning Rod): 
3 stars

1984’s “Born in the USA” is Bruce Springsteen’s most commercial album, the one that vaulted him to superstar status — thus rife for tribute. Stripped of bombastic production by Americana and indie-rock artists including Justin Townes Earle, Low and Joe Pug, this tribute’s strongest — and most “Nebraska”-esque — moments occur when artists dig into Springsteen’s resonant words. North Mississippi All Stars’ “My Hometown” is a lyric-trampling misstep, but Holly Williams transforms “No Surrender” into a beautiful country vow; other highlights include Blitzen Trapper’s boogeying “Working on the Highway” and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ sober, violin-edged reading of “Born in the USA.”




SEAN ROWE, Madman (Anti): 4 stars

The earthy New York troubadour strips down and lightens up for a satisfying set inspired by classic rock and blues and soul legends R.L Burnside, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Otis Redding (check out the gutbucket blues guitar riffs powering “Done Calling You”). Rowe’s boomy baritone dominates the simple arrangements, relating existential questions and intimate moments in songs like “Spiritual Leader” and “Razor of Love” (“My face is a house stuck in hopeless repair/ Your youth took a hike from your beautiful hair/ But I want to grow old with you, didn’t lie when I told you I love you”).

DAVINA & THE VAGABONDS, Sunshine (Roustabout)4 stars

The Twin Cities ensemble shift easily from sassy old-school jazz to soulful balladry and barroom blues, with clarinet, trombone and trumpet swapping solos with frontwoman Davina Sowers’ piano; their slinky cover of Fats Wallers’ “You Must Be Losing Your Mind” conjures visions of Raymond Chandler elbowing his way to the bar. Whether moaning “Away From Me” or stomping through the blues chestnut “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” Sowers’ sparkling Amy Winehouse-meets-Bessie Smith vocals anchor them all. At the Mint in LA Thursday, Sept. 18.

ROADKILL GHOST CHOIR, In Tongues (Greatest Hiss): 3½ Stars

If Tom Petty ever decided to ditch his Heartbreakers for a jam with the War on Drugs, the result might sound akin to Roadkill Ghost Choir. Replay-worthy tracks “A Blow to the Head,” “Down & Out,” “Slow Knife,” “Lazarus, You’ve Been Dreaming” and “Dead Friend” meld Petty-style grit and ringing chords (themselves an inheritance from the Byrds) with WOD’s more psychedelic atmospherics and elongated guitar lines. It’s a big step forward from 2012’s “Quiet Light.”

CHRIS WALDEN BIG BAND, Full-On! (Origin): 4 stars

The Grammy-nominated arranger makes bank working with A-list pop stars (Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé), but his passion’s his swinging, 18-piece big band. They give Leonard Bernstein’s “I Can Cook Too” a hard jump-blues snap, and make Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking” swing with joy, while Tierney Sutton (one of six vocalists) adds resigned luster to the Frank Sinatra chestnut “Only the Lonely.” Less polish and more passages like the frantic bass opening “Arturo” (featuring Cuban trumpeter Sandoval) would be welcome, but this remains a crisp, stylish production of a sort rarely heard in 21st-century jazz.