(Polydor *** 1/2)
With his third album, Ugandan-British songwriter Michael Kiwanuka has once again woven together a seamless song cycle that takes its sweet time in expressing hopes, fears, and doubts. Produced by frequent collaborators Danger Mouse and Inflo, Kiwanuka bathes the voice of the singer — depicted as a Tudor king in Markeidric Walker’s album cover painting — in strings and lush atmospherics.
When the slowly unwinding “Cold, Cold Heart” from 2016’s Love & Hate was used as intro music to the hit HBO series Big Little Lies, it brought the folk-soul singer a larger audience. Patient Kiwanuka tunes like “Hard to Say Goodbye” and “Light” employ a similar strategy, allowing the listener to luxuriate in the wonders of Kiwanuka’s grainy voice, redolent of other genre-fluid soul men like Bill Withers and Terence Trent D’Arby.
But the music retains an anxious edge, as Kiwanuka navigates uncertainty and struggles with self-confidence on songs like “Living in Denial.” “Hero” draws inspiration from the life of Black Panther Fred Hampton, slain 50 years ago this December; it’s in part about police shootings, then and now, as well as the simple heroism of staying alive and present for those you love. Kiwanuka makes unhurried music that exists outside current trends. That’s what makes it so valuable in the here and now. — Dan DeLuca
Play the Hits
(Mondo Mundo/Thirty Tigers *** 1/2)
When a singer has a voice with the richness, range, and grandeur of Raul Malo’s, and he is backed by a band that possesses similar qualities, it figures to be a treat to hear how they put their stamp on familiar material by others. The Mavericks don’t disappoint. On Play the Hits, they Mav-erize 11 numbers, but not with a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, the performances reflect the breadth and thrill of their own music over the last three decades.
Fittingly, the Mavericks come out “Swingin’,” giving the John Anderson country hit a tougher, more insinuating groove that heightens its sexiness. From there, they immediately transform the Waylon Jennings country-rocker “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” into a horn-powered blast of swaggering R&B. Among the other up-tempo highlights, Don and Dewey’s buoyant “I’m Leaving It Up to You” gets the kind of Latin flavor that has always been an integral part of the Mavericks’ sound, thanks to Malo’s Cuban heritage, and that also permeates this set.
It’s no surprise that Malo kills on the ballads here, from the supper-club torch of the gender-switched Patsy Cline classic “Why Can’t She Be You” to the acoustic starkness of “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain,” made famous by Willie Nelson. And it’s hard to think of a singer and song more perfectly matched than Malo and fellow Latino Freddy Fender’s immortal “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” — Nick Cristiano
Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs
At 31, songwriter/producer Blanco Brown capitalized on Lil Nas X’s record-breaking, country-rap fusion “Old Town Road” with the irresistible “The Git Up,” a line-dancing anthem fitted with stuttering 808s. It reached the top 20 of the Hot 100 and portended this debut album, which adds nine other more-country-than-rap tunes.
Unlike Lil Nas X, Brown leans into his novelty smash with layers of his nasal register harmonized into Auto-Tune caramel and plenty of lonesome guitar. The opening “Temporary Insanity” puts Brown’s best foot forward with a twangy, campfire soul burner, and the gospel-inflected “Don’t Love Her” smoothly creates the illusion that all these disparate genres were bedfellows in the first place. But Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs leans into its uncoolness a little too comfortably; the best pop takes some risks. So when “The Git Up” finally shows up as an encore, it’s a reminder that country-rap is just getting started and Brown is still figuring it out like everyone else. — Dan Weiss