By Gregg Shapiro
It’s best to get this tidbit out of the way first; Greta Kline, best known as singer/songwriter Frankie Cosmos is the daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. We know her father can sing because he was on Broadway in Pirates of Penzance (alongside Linda Ronstadt!), but we haven’t had the dance to hear her mother belt one out. Genetics aside, Vessel (Sub Pop), the third Frankie Cosmos album in four years, is as much an original artistic statement as it is an homage to her forebears Liz Phair and artists on the K Records roster. These 18 irresistible songs (run-time 34 minutes), including the wondrous title track, “Accommodate”, “Cafeteria”, “This Stuff”, “Apathy”, “Caramelize”, “Being Alive” and “Same Thing” are a celebration of the economy of poetic language.
Almost everything you need to know about Caroline Rose can be heard on “More of the Same”, the extraordinary opening track on Loner (New West), Rose’s third album. There is humor, sensitivity, insight and an Op-1 keyboard; the combo is intoxicating. It’s an honest indication of what follows on songs that incorporate updated retro new wave sensibilities (“Cry!”), outrageous funk (“Jeannie Becomes A Mom”, “Talk”), 21st century sixties revival (“Bikini”, “Money”, “Soul No. 5”, “Animal”) and perfect pop (“Getting To Me”). Without a doubt, one of the best albums of 2018 thus far.
Don’t let George Ezra’s booming baritone distract you. The adorable Brit singer/songwriter, who featured Sir Ian McKellan in one of his music videos, is only in his mid-20s; much younger than he sounds. There’s also a maturity to his songwriting on the 11 songs heard on his second album Staying at Tamara’s (Columbia) that belies his years. If it was Ezra’s 2014 breakout single “Budapest” that initially caught your attention, the good news is that there are enough songs on Staying at Tamara’s that live up to those on his first album Wanted on Voyage. “Paradise”, “Pretty Shiny People”, “Get Away”, “The Beautiful Dream” and “Only A Human” are among the best to be found here.
Valerie June calls her sound “organic moonshine roots music” and it fits. Her take on the modern Memphis style is in full effect on her second solo disc, The Order of Time (Concord). Equally haunting and exhilarating, the 12 songs beautifully highlight Valerie June’s unique vocals and her talents as a songwriter. This distinctive combination is best exemplified on “Astral Plane”, “If And”, the aptly named “Got Soul” and the rocking “Shakedown”.
Incredible but true, it took Chicana California punk legend and activist Alice Bag (of The Bags fame) almost 40 years to record a proper full-length album. Her 2016 eponymous debut featured queer singer/songwriter Kristian Hoffman on a few tracks and was a welcome rallying cry. Not wasting any time, Alice Bag returns with Blueprint (Don Giovanni), on which she is joined by Hoffman again, as well as Kathleen Hanna, Allison Wolfe and others. Songs such as “White Justice”, “77”, “Stranger”, “Etched Deep”, “Shame Game”, “Invisible” and “Turn It Up” make it clear that Bag still has plenty to say and we would all benefit from listening.
Let’s face it, there’s so much music being released these days that it’s easy to overlook some of the best. Coming from the piano/vocal tradition that includes Carole King, Laura Nyro and Tori Amos, Jillette Johnson made her debut in 2013 with the wonderful Water in a Whale album that featured the song “Cameron” about a queer kid. The follow-up, All I Ever See in You is Me (Rounder), released last year, lives up to the promise of her first disc. Johnson is something of a triple threat – she has a powerful and emotive singing voice, she’s a gifted pianist and she writes memorable songs. All three of those attributes come through on songs such as “Throw Out Your Mirror”, “Bunny”, “Like You Raised Me”, “Flip A Coin” and “In Repair”.
“Goth folk” diva Aldous Harding must have a good sense of humor, naming her second album Party (4AD) as she did. While the songs are bizarre in an intriguing way, this is probably not a party most people would want to attend, as exemplified by the title cut. Brief opener “Blend” blends acoustic guitar with a dark synth beat. “Imagining My Man”, which clocks in at almost six minutes, is a subtly stirring tune on which Harding, joined by gay singer/songwriter Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius), conjures Kristin Hersh. Song titles such as “What if Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Singing” and “Swell Does The Skull” should also give you a good idea of what’s in store (and worth a listen!).
With his inclination towards a retro pop sound on Make Way for Love (Dead Oceans), singer/songwriter Marlon Williams could be the New Zealand male version of the previously mentioned Caroline Rose. Williams’ soulful voice, which at times crosses over into Anohni territory, serves songs such as “What’s Chasing You”, “Beautiful Dress”, “Love Is a Terrible Thing”, “Can I Call You”, “Make Way For Love” and “Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore” (featuring the above-mentioned Aldous Harding) very well. In spite of the vintage vibe, Williams is very much a contemporary artist as you can hear on “Party Boy”.