Time to clean the decks again, so here are a few short reviews to alert readers about new releases.
Simrit Kaur is a Greek-born, South Carolina-raised Sikh, a phrase that probably just set off a few "New Age" alarms. Get over it. Simrit performs sacred chant music, but her musical influences include: Greek legend Nana Mouskouri and ancient Byzantine music, Jeff Buckley, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, and The Grateful Dead. Plus Loreena McKennitt, which makes a lot of sense because Simrit's dreamy cadences, like McKennitt's or Enya's, often tumble out of frothy mixes. You'll hear bells and angelic harmonies behind her, but also percussion and peddle steel. Songs like "Kal Akaal" are at once deeply meditative, but the bass notes are heavy and vaguely ominous and the feel is evocative of quieter Renaissance folk rock offerings—think Pentangle. "Pure" uses electric guitar for the effect a sitar might induce in an Indian raga, but Simrit's voice has all the power and ornamentation of a pop singer. About that voice—it's one for the ages. Her songs are so gorgeous you might find your pacified mind disconnects from your sashaying body. (By the way, all Sikh women use the surname Kaur in the same way that all males use Singh.)
Speaking of intriguing voices, Yael Meyer is worth adding to singers-you-should-check-out bucket list. In her own way, she's as meditative as Simrit, but she does it more in a folk/pop vein. She's a Chilean-born, Los Angeles-based artist in the indie pop/folk range whose latest release Warrior Heart (Kli Records, 2014) generated some buzz. The title track is a nice mix of lush pop and energetic polyrhythm that creates a solid aural base for Meyer's voice. Hers is delicate palette, but she uses her 'small' voice in confident and interesting ways that make it sound bigger than it is. A personal favorite is "Everything Will Be Alright," an upbeat song with a slightly quirky backbeat and clipped end-of-line syllables on the chorus that punctuate the arrangement and add silent contrast to her light vocals. Meyer won't blow you away with power but—like the TV and movie soundtrack works to her credit—her voice is that background lilt that makes you take notice when you least expect it.
There's a band from Magnolia, Texas that calls itself Family Folk Revival. That's based largely on the fact that three members of the quintet come from the Lankford family, but aside from a few forays into (mostly) acoustic music ("Marfa," "Trash") there's not much on their new record Water Walker (Rock Ridge Music) that evokes a coffeehouse scene. FFF calls itself a "psychedelic rock and roll band" and that doesn't quite cut it either, though lead vocalist Mason Lankford evokes Jim Morrison on songs such as "Dream" and "I Found God." A better descriptor would be to call these guys moody garage country. Thick thwacking bass lines frame the breakdown song "I Drew a Line," and "Darlin'" feels like bluegrass from the place where the mountain stream drains into a swamp. A lot of FFF songs have dark edges and arrangements—the echo chamber used in "Everyone Loves Everyone," the spooky feel to "American Standard," and the grungy guitar and bass of "If It Don't Kill You (It ain't Love)." But yeah, these guys are country. You don't get much more country than a line like line: Now I'm drunk again tonight/Like I was the night before that/And the night before that/And the night before that. But you know what? Slap any label you want on them because they're just damned good. If I were their manager, though, I'd make them get a new moniker. (Try an Internet search on Family Folk Revival and leave yourself extra time!)
Does the music industry ask women to go by one name because it sees them as interchangeable widgets? Here's hoping that a young singer from Wyoming billed simply as Jennell doesn't let Nashville turn her into a replacement part. Her music evokes the indie pop/club music side of things (especially Sweden's Robyn) and her new EP Home is filled with bubbly hooks and energy. You can hear her youth in songwriting way too heavy on ooo-ooo-ooo and woo-ooo-oo filler, but this young woman knows how to use her voice. She can reach up for diva stuff, but she builds to it and has an infectious catch that she uses to good effect. She's strongest, though, when the arrangements ratchet down. "Feels Like Home" and "Pave My Own Way" are winners because she controls the vibe, whereas the other three songs, though they have their virtues, feel more like the mix is controlling her. Lots of promise, though—if she can avoid widget syndrome. [No videos available.]
I can't tell you the number of young women I run into who'd like to be Ingrid Michaelson when they grow up. Small wonder. If you think pop music has to be banal, check out her back catalog. Her sampler A Summer Night Out illustrates why she's an underground goddess. First of all, she owns the arrangements, not vice versa. "Time Machine" is gutsy and bluesy, with Michaelson's voice matching the grit of the brassy horns. In like fashion, she uses heavy bass as the dark counterpoint to her bright voice on "The Way I Am," a song that hold another key to her success: her willingness to take chances—by bringing a cool jazz ambience to pop in this case. On "Warpath" she absolutely abuses what we think about pop by squeezing it into some hand jive and layering it with swamp rock. I could go on, but you really need to hear her—if for no other reason, you'll understand why tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings swoon when her name is dropped. (She's the coolest thing in glasses this side of Tina Fey, by the way.)