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Friday, March 31, 2017

21st-Century Women

Written by  Gregg Shapiro

Would we have Mitski without queer artist St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark)? Possibly, but it’s hard to ignore St. Vincent’s influence. Nevertheless, Mitski is boldly and brilliantly her own artist on Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans); beginning with the stuttering beat and fluttering vocal of the bizarre “Happy,” a song that morphs from experimental to pure pop and back again. Her loud/quiet/loud approach on “Best American Girl” suits the drama of the subject matter. Listeners would be wise to prepare themselves for the shift from the string-busting, shrieking punk of “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” to the exquisite ballad “Thursday Girl.” Like puberty, there is never a dull moment on this album and Mitski makes nothing less than an indelible impression with songs such as “Crack Baby,” “Dan the Dancer,” and “Fireworks”.

Jesca Hoop released her debut album in 2007. Ten years later, she’s finally getting the recognition that she deserves with Memories Are Now (Sub Pop), her latest album. Memories Are Now arrives on the coattails of 2016’s Love Letter for Fire, a well-received collaboration with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. Hoop, who has never really fit neatly into a musical category, continues to be unconventional in the best possible way. The opening title cut is one of the more accessible tunes, but it’s no cookie-cutter Katy Perry song. It’s a bare-bones affair augmented by layered choral vocals. The aptly named “Animal Kingdom Chaotic” is sure to appeal LGBT fans of Little Britain with its “computer says no” echo. Other standouts include “Unsaid,” “Pegasi,” and “Simon Says.”

Endorsed by Hillary Clinton’s former running mate Tim Kaine, Lucy Dacus makes her debut with No Burden (Matador). You have to admit that that’s quite a distinction and after one listen to the album it’s easy to understand the appeal. Dacus’ honey and smoke voice conveys every inch of an emotion, which is a good thing since her songs, beginning with opener “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” pack an emotional wallop. “Troublemaker Doppelganger,” for example, alternates between the blues and a modern rock gallop, while “Strange Torpedo” is subtly explosive.

Medicine For Birds (Warner Brothers), the debut album by young singer/ songwriter Angelica Garcia is just the thing for what ails you. Garcia is a natural folkie (“Bridge on Fire”), front-porch stomper (“Woman, I’m Hollerin’”), modern blues blaster (“Orange Flower”), balladeer (“Loretta Lynn”) and twangy torch singer (“Call Me Later”). The dozen songs on Medicine for Birds are a fine introduction to an artist with much to offer listeners.

The rocky coast photo on the cover of Sallie Ford’s Soul Sick (Vanguard) is an indication that these songs are a different kind of beach music. The vintage vibe of “Screw Up,” “Loneliness Is Power,” “Failure,” “Middle Child” and “Hurts So Bad,” might have you thinking about doing The Swim or The Jerk in a polka-dot bikini atop a crowded beach blanket. However, you’d be wise to pay attention to the lyrics which are about more than hot rods and finding the perfect wave. Don’t neglect to dig that Farfisa on “Get Out” and the horn section on “Rapid Eyes.”

Taking its title, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), from the “Pops” Staples song that closes the disc, Rhiannon Giddens’s stellar second solo album, like Ford’s, mines a vintage vein. Also like Ford, Giddens writes and performs in a style that honors the past. Never one to shy away from important subject matter, Giddens opens the recording with “At The Purchaser’s Option.” There is much to admire here, especially in the way that she’s able to strike a balance between styles of folk and soul music that call on the past (“We Could Fly,” “Hey Bébé,” “The Love We Almost Had”) and the present (“Birmingham Sunday” and “Better Get It Right The First Time”), sometimes within the same song.

If the name Beth Hart sounds familiar, it’s because 20 or so years ago, she had a hit single titled “L.A. Song (Out of this Town),” from her second album Screamin’ For My Supper. In the years that followed, Hart followed her blues passion, releasing a number of albums closely associated with the genre. Fire on the Floor (Provogue), her latest, breaks up the blues with pleasing pop-soul (“Let’s Get Together”), jazz balladry (“Woman You’ve Been Dreaming Of”), piano-driven power-pop (“Picture in a Frame”) ,and stunning piano/vocal closer “No Place Like Home.”

Sallie Ford performs on April 13th in Philadelphia at Johnny Brenda’s and on April 14th in D.C. at DC9.

Lucy Dacus performs May 20th in Philadelphia at Union Transfer and on May 27th in D.C. at 9:30 Club.

Mitski performs on July 7th in Philadelphia at Union Transfer and on July 8th in D.C. at 9:30 Club.

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