It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that no one else sounds like Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. As accessible as much of the new album Nikki Nack (4AD) is, it still doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything else out there in the stratosphere. Garbus and her musical partner Nate Brenner have found a new way to lure us in with the futuristic soul of the opening track “Find a New Way,” as well as the spiritual wail of “Time of Dark” and fragile funk of “Wait for a Minute.” The cool and refreshing “Water Fountain” improves on the body-moving beats of Kelis’s “Milkshake”—and it’s non-fat, too! “Water Fountain” is the kind of song that should be blasting from car windows and dance-club sound systems in equal measure. “Real Thing” and “Hey Life” deconstruct hip-hop for hipsters, and “Rocking Chair” is a front-porch chant meant for lazy, sweaty summer days.
Clear across the spectrum from Garbus is one Mariah Carey. Still posing like a centerfold, Carey is as contradictory as ever. An “elusive chanteuse” (yeah, right!), Carey includes a childhood rendering in the album graphics and then proceeds to ramble on about privacy and sharing in her typically delusional style. But wait—Me. I Am Mariah (Def Jam) is a CD, not a gallery show. Opening track “Cry.” (the period is hers) is one of the best ballads she’s ever recorded. Even hip-hop intrusions, such as Nas on “Dedicated,” are more controlled and less overwhelming, allowing the song to breathe in our ears. The retro-charged “Make It Look Good” and “#Beautiful,” featuring Miguel, are also a pleasure. The vintage disco vibe of “Meteorite” should make Mariah popular at tea dances, and her cover of George Michael’s “One More Try” is an unexpected novelty.
With Sheezus (WB/Regal), Lily Allen ends her five-year (early) retirement and aims for Kanye West’s crooked crown (of thorns). Lashing out Lily-style at the competition (including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry) on the title cut, Allen saves her praise for Lorde. The remaining dozen songs, including a bonus track cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” are catchy and fun, especially “Our Time,” “Air Balloon,” the bayou bump of “As Long as I Got You,” the cutting “URL Badman,” and the world beat of “Life For Me,” but fall short of being worthy successors to the top-notch songs on her first two albums.
Christina Perri, another in an increasingly long line of singer/songwriters who owes her success to having a song placed in a TV show, returns with her second full-length album Head or Heart (Atlantic). A bit on the formulaic side, Perri runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle, brushed aside by unstoppable forces such as Katy Perry. Still, she knows cool people (“Be My Favorite” features Ed Sheeran) and “Human” is achingly, well, human. “The Words” is a beautiful ballad, and “Shot Me in the Heart” livens things up a bit. [Editor’s note: see Perri with Onerepublic and Jamie Scott on August 22 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands.]
Unrepentant Geraldines (Mercury Classics) by Tori Amos is a more accessible comeback of sorts after a series of excursions into Tori-land, which included a symphonic reimagining of some of her classic tunes, as well as a classical pop-song cycle. One of Amos’s most mature efforts, Unrepentant Geraldines is at turns political (the title cut, “America,” “Giant’s Rolling Pin”), typically woo-woo (“Maids of Elfen-mere,” “Weatherman,” “Rose Dover”), and then something else entirely (the mother/daughter duet with Tash on “Promise”). Welcome back, Miss Tori.
Her first new studio disc of all-original material in more than a dozen years, Natalie Merchant’s eponymous Nonesuch release is a wonderful recording. With a voice as distinctive as Merrill Garbus and Tori Amos’s, she sounds fabulous on the nearly-seven-minute opener “Ladybird.” She also raises goosebumps (in addition to the roof) on the gospel-influenced “Go Down, Moses,” invites us to “take a look inside” on “Black Sheep,” heralds the coming revolution on “It’s a-Coming” and brings things to a lush close on “The End.”
Fellow Nordic diva Robyn may be hogging the spotlight, but Lykke Li is also getting her share of attention. Her stunning breakup album I Never Learn (Atlantic) is a wallow-worthy set of nine tearful tunes including “Never Gonna Love Again,” “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone,” “No Rest for the Wicked,” “Heart of Steel,” and “Sleeping Alone.” The beats are few and far between, but that may have to do with the beat of Lykke Li’s broken heart. Let’s hope this cathartic album has allowed her to heal (and learn) and that she’s soon back to her old self again.
On Wine Dark Sea (Anti-), her sixth album in a little over 10 years, alternative folk goddess Jolie Holland (of Be Good Tanyas fame), goes to the electric edge, churning out a set of dazzling tunes that qualify as her best yet. Landing on the sonic scale somewhere between Erin McKeown and Lucinda Williams, Holland blurs the lines between folk, punk, blues, and country with an intoxicating grace.
Singer/songwriter Vienna Teng made news in the LGBT community in the early part of the 21st century with her song “City Hall,” a tune about same-sex marriage. Teng’s latest release, Aims (Soltruna) expands her sound to include synthy beats on some songs such as “Landsailor” (featuring Glen Phillips), which wouldn’t be out of place in the hands of a club DJ.
Modern rockabilly goddess Imelda May doesn’t just dress the part; the Irish diva respectfully follows the rockabilly revival rules once again on her new album Tribal (Decca). A 21st-century update of the genre’s ’50s origins (remember Carl Perkins?) crossed with the comeback style from the ’80s (remember the Stray Cats?), Tribal’s best numbers—“It’s Good to Be Alive,” “Little Pixie,” “Five Good Men,” and “Round the Bend”—make nostalgia sound refreshing.
Like the aforementioned Vienna Teng, Priscilla Ahn enlarges her usually acoustic sound to incorporate delicate electronic instrumentation on her third album This Is Where We Are (SQE). It’s an admirable move, and one used to great effect on the aptly titled “Loop,” as well as “Home,” “You and Me,” “Wedding March,” “In a Closet in the Middle of the Night,” and the title track.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.