(Loma Vista ***)
Every St. Vincent album comes with a fresh concept and persona.
On 2014′s St. Vincent, singer and shape-shifter Annie Clark was a “near future cult leader.” On 2017′s Masseduction, she was “like a dominatrix at a mental institution,” pealing off wicked guitar solos while done up in latex and high heels.
With Daddy’s Home, Clark time-travels back to 1970s New York. She’s calling the new aesthetic “Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes film,” evoked in a “color palette of the world of Taxi Driver.”
Musically, that means touches of early ‘70s Stevie Wonder funk and swirling Pink Floyd prog, hard-hitting horns on the opening “Pay Your Way In Pain,” and gauzy interludes on several tracks that turn into drifting mood pieces. She continues to work with New Jersey producer-to-the-stars Jack Antonoff — also a go-to guy for Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey, among others.
Daddy’s Home also has an autobiographical bent, on the title track, which is about the return of Clark’s father from prison after serving 10 years for his role in a stock-manipulation scheme.
After that news broke in the tabloid press, Clark decided to take control of the narrative in the endearingly tender song. “You still got it in your government green suit, and I look down and out in my fine Italian shoes, " she sings. “We’re tight as a Bible with the pages stuck like glue.”
At its best, the new album is richly rewarding. “Down and Out and Downtown” gurgles with an inviting warmth.
But Daddy’s Home often fails to connect: The mean streets Clark is inhabiting have been well trodden, and the soulful milieu she’s chosen isn’t a natural fit for an artist who has previously specialized in operating at a cool distance.
— Dan DeLuca
Surrounded by Time
(S-Curve *** 1/2)
Though still probably best known for lounge-y ’60s hits such as “It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New Pussycat?,” Tom Jones has always been able to go toe-to-toe with his more acclaimed peers in rock and R&B. Now, at 80, the Welsh eminence continues a remarkable late run with Surrounded by Time.
With its Moog-dominated atmospherics, the album is less overtly rootsy than Jones’ three previous, excellent collaborations with producer Ethan Johns. But like all first-rate interpreters, the singer again invests himself in a disparate collection of songs and uses them to fashion his own story. And, with the exception of a too-busy “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the accompaniment here enhances rather than detracts.
The former sex symbol has some winking fun with Cat Stevens’ “Pop Star,” and he audaciously tackles stoner-savant Todd Snider’s “Talking Reality Television Blues.” That song and Jones’ take on Tony Joe White’s “Ol’ Mother Earth” a lament for the ravaged environment, both speak to pressing matters.
While the singer admits frailties on Michael Kiwanuka’s “I Won’t Lie” and Bobby Cole’s “I’m Growing Old,” the invigorating gospel of “Samson and Delilah” and the brash declarations of Malvina Reynolds’ “No Hole in My Head” reveal his booming voice to be as robust as ever.
Jones finishes with a 9-minutes-plus version of Terry Callier’s “Lazarus Man.” As Surrounded by Time makes clear, his own story is less one of coming back from the dead and more that of an artist continuing to find ways to maximize his gifts and remain stirringly relevant.
— Nick Cristiano
Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue
Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses
(Pi Recordings ****)
It was a given that this latest album by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu would emerge as a confessional, complex, and richly layered work. That’s been the case with everything she has created to date, blending influences from her studies of diverse Asian folk and performance traditions with innovative jazz exploration.
Zero Grasses was complicated further by a variety of events, including the pandemic and the politics of 2020. Shyu also suffered the sudden loss of her father while she was away on a five-month residency in Japan. While helping her mother sort through her father’s possessions, Shyu was reunited with her childhood diaries, excerpts of which are woven into the songs.
Zero Grasses thus became something both deeply personal and searchingly expansive, confronting the vital issues of the day with mature ferocity and the echoes of childhood confusion.
Her Jade Tongue band features some of the most inventive voices in modern creative music: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Dan Weiss. The ensemble channels the music’s conflicting passions with visceral empathy and intense curiosity.
At the heart of this remarkable album is Shyu’s singular voice, which traces sinuous, filigreed melodies shaped by cultural influences but remains untethered and always questing. She’s a captivating storyteller whose narratives are raw and confessional while speaking to larger truths, a vital takeaway from the folk traditions she’s studied.
— Shaun Brady