Terri Lyne Carrington, Years & Years, Dave Koz, and more.
By Gregg Shapiro
In recent years, overlooked queer artists including Smokey, Jobriath, Steven Grossman, Lavender Country, and Arthur Russell—all of whom were too ahead of their time for their own good—have finally gotten some of the attention that they deserve. British musician John Howard is another such artist. An openly gay performer in 1975, when his major-label debut Kid in a Big World was released, Howard never fully reached his popularity potential in his homeland, and was completely disregarded stateside. Working consistently through the years, Howard now has a chance to reach a larger audience with the release of his timeless new pop album John Howard & the Night Mail (Tapete). Ten of the disc’s 11 songs are Howard’s collaborations with band-mates Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis, and Ian Button, with the 11th being a cover of Roddy Frame’s “Small World.” Standout tracks include “London’s After-Work Drinking Culture,” “Deborah Fletcher,” “Before,” “Thunder in Vienna,” “This Song,” and “Control Freak.”
Lured out of self-imposed retirement by songwriter/producer Chris Braide (who has worked with Sia, Kylie Minogue, Paloma Faith, Britney, and Beyoncé), queen of new-wave Marc Almond (remember Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”?) returns with The Velvet Trail (Cherry Red/SFE). Almond and Braide collaborated on the dozen songs, which are broken up into three “acts” separated by instrumental interludes and codas. Essentially, the music on the album sounds like a Braide production paired with lyrics by Almond. This is best exemplified on “Scar,” “Demon Lover,” “Bad to Me,” “The Pain of Never,” the dramatic “Life in My Own Way,” and the exceptional Beth Ditto duet “When the Comet Comes.”
Mika could have used a duet such as “Popular Song”—the one he did with Ariana Grande on his 2012 disc The Origin of Love—on his new album No Place in Heaven (Casablanca/Republic). There’s nothing here that approaches the youthful exuberance of “Popular Song,” but maybe that was the goal. In other words, Mika sounds intent on leaving the “cartoon boy” of his past behind in favor a more grown-up perspective. No Place in Heaven still has traces of Mika’s trademark dance-pop, but the subject matter is decidedly serious on songs such as “All She Wants,” “Last Party,” “Ordinary Man,” “Hurts,” “Staring at the Sun,” and the title cut.
The latest installment in lesbian drummer/percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project series, The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul (Concord), features more collaborations with Carrington and a host of divalicious vocalists. The 12-track album features six Carrington originals and six covers that fit together to create a sonic montage. Fierce performances include Chaka Khan’s “I’m a Fool to Want You,” Natalie Cole’s “Come Sunday,” Ledisi’s “Get to Know You,” Paula Cole’s “You Just Can’t Smile It Away,” and Nancy Wilson’s “Imagine This.” Additionally, the musicians performing on the disc (including Meshell Ndegeocello, Patrice Rushen, Regina Carter, and Geri Allen) are a who’s-who of some of the best in the industry.
Olly Alexander, the out gay front man of the British trio Years & Years, said in an interview earlier this year that he’s singing about his “boyfriends” in the songs on Communion (Interscope). The 13 dance-pop tunes are more pop than dance, although there is a persistent beat on most of the songs. In fact, you have to wait until you get to the chewy center of Communion before you can really cut loose on straightforward dance songs such as “King,” “Desire,” and “Cold.” Also noteworthy are “Ties,” “Border,” and the Sam Smithy “Real” and “Border.”
Easily the boldest and bravest album of his career, Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union) is the musical statement Ezra Furman has been preparing to make for years. Fully embracing his new “gender fluid” identity, Furman comes across as the ultimate violent femme, with vocals that undeniably recall Gordon Gano. In a little black dress and snagged black tights on the album cover, Furman appears poised to give people a perpetual good time, and he delivers. From the exhilarating opening tune “Restless Year” to the updated retro-pop of “Lousy Connection” and “Pot Holes” to the refreshing rhythm of “Wobbly” to the hot noise-pop of “Tip of a Match” and the modern gospel of “One Day I Will Sin No More,” Furman, backed by his band the Boy-Friends, sets the emotion in Motion.
Cabaret remains the domain of gay men. As a new generation of young performers (who look like they spend as much time at the gym as they do brushing up on the standards) begins to step up to the mic in front of the piano, they take new and interesting risks. Hot Nicholas Rodriguez is one such performer. Based on the talented vocalist’s one-man show, his debut album The First Time . . . (PS Classics) demonstrates what he can do with show tunes such as “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “You’ll Be in My Heart.” Not limiting himself to that songbook, Rodriguez also covers an array of female singer/songwriters including Joni Mitchell (“Conversation” and “A Case of You”), Carole King (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), Dolly Parton (“Jolene”), and Sara Bareilles (“Brave”), revealing his admirable taste in music.
Smooth jazz’s gay sax man Dave Koz commemorates the first quarter-century of his prolific recording career with the compilation Collaborations: 25th Anniversary Collection (Concord), comprised of both new and previously released material. The set includes some of the usual smooth-jazz suspects, including Boney James, Kenny Lattimore, Rick Braun, Jeff Lorber, David Benoit, and Brian Culbertson. Where the compilation really excels is in delightful collaborations with Stevie Nicks (“Let Me Count the Ways”), Herb Alpert (“This Guy’s in Love With You”), Luther Vandross (“Can’t Let You Go”), and even Barry Manilow (“Apartment 2G: I Hear Her Playing Music”).
On The Phantom Cowboy (MPress), its first album in five years, sibling duo K’s Choice (led by out lesbian Sarah Bettens) rocks out with a vengeance over the course of 11 songs that hint at a renewed energy. In fact, the album’s first three songs—“Perfect Scar,” “As Rock & Roll as It Gets,” and the fantastic “Woman”—represent some of the most memorable music they’ve made in quite some time. Whether rocking at warp speed on “Come Alive” and “Down” or venturing into unusual sonic territory on “Bag of Concrete,” it’s obvious K’s Choice made the right choice to reunite.
Jacob Mondry’s debut album, unison (Tranny Rex), is proof of the gay, blue-eyed soul singer’s appreciation of classic ’60s and ’70s R&B. The best example can be heard on the delirious delight “Tomorrow Never Comes.” Foot-stomping soul radiates throughout the disc with the brassy funk of “Foxy & Free,” the radiant “Two Suns,” and the smooth ballad “My Love (Still Keeps You Warm).”
Gay indie musician Dave Hall has a lot to say (and sing about), so he has released two full-length albums, Songs of Boyhood and Songs of Brooklyn (rowhousemusic.com). A sophisticated and experimental pair of recordings, both discs do satisfying jobs of making the personal universal. A series of poems that are either set to music or spoken, Songs of Boyhood features Hall backed by a string quartet. This has the effect of deepening the impact of songs such as “Lullaby” and “Parents, Monsters and God.” Hall plays guitar and sings the dozen songs on Songs of Brooklyn, backed by piano and cello, giving this album a more theatrical feel than the other one.