If you’re the kind of person who cares about such things, here’s a rough conversion scale for my rankings. GO = 8-10, A- through A+. SLOW = 6-7, B through B+. NO = everything under that.
We Are King
A lovely bath bomb of an album, dissolving in hypnotic swirls, releasing soothing gels, emitting tranquil scents. The pleasures here are sensual rather than sexual: Chord changes gently divert a melody from its expected course for a familiar but unspecifiable effect (Stevie at his most abstract? Chaka at her jazziest?), percussion fades distantly and synths twinkle in its wake. From such forms and textures producer Paris Strother coaxes a pulse that falls somewhere between Isleys as ambient and the drowsy brush of a lover’s fingertips, while the murmurs of her twin Amber and third member Anita Bias harmonize and diverge, occasionally choked with Baduizt incense. Immerse. Indulge. Luxuriate.
Santi White still belts with the eager rasp of a teen discovered while harmonizing on her stoop and writes with the wit of the Brill Building hustler tasked with supplying that girl’s #1 hit. Bo Diddley couldn’t mean “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” any more than she does, and “Banshee” is like the work of a one-woman Nina Sky (feat. M.I.A.). The metapop packaging’s a little arch, though any mid-lister, regardless of profession, who got a foot in the door just as the walls came crashing down can identify with that nostalgia for self-commodification. But if you can’t get enough of her either you won’t get enough of her here — too often she falls back on a jagged groove as though vamping till inspiration strikes.
Livin’ on a High Note
Like Jeff Tweedy before him, producer M. Ward can assemble a roots record without getting in his own way. I wouldn’t be surprised if those are his ace Steve Cropper imitations, and he does the Lord’s work adapting MLK’s words for an acoustic coda. Few of the NPR First Listen alums in the credits would be my first songwriting choices, but Staples makes the best of what Ben Harper or the Heart and the Head don’t have to say, and I’m like sure-why-not? with the two lyrics that conflate soul and self-care. Only Aloe Blacc’s “Tomorrow” is DOA, a collection of chin-up cliches that Randy Newman should still be nasty enough to re-record with “(Song for a Dying Five-Year-Old)” tacked onto the title. The weak link, honestly, is Staples’ oomph-deficient touring band. You know, Mavis, to my knowledge ?uestlove has never turned down a paying gig.
A willowy voice in a nation of baobabs, Traoré crafted a neotraditionalist sound on her early albums that, while genteel by the robust standards of Mali’s Wassoulou queens, felt modestly defiant — a diplomat’s daughter refusing to be estranged from a culture worth preserving. Nearly two decades later, with international Islamism proving an even greater threat to her heritage than international capital, she struggles to accept that the gorgeous and cosmopolitan acoustic music she makes with sympatico Brits John Parrish and John Paul Jones could be more instructive to Westerners than any UNHCR fact sheets. Contrast “Strange Fruit,” which confronts horror with art, with “Se Dan,” which offers platitudes and Devendra Banhart. Stick with Wanita, Bowmboï, even Tchamantché, and donate to the Mali crisis relief organization of your choice.
Not even PBR&B. Not even Beach House. Not even damp.