H.E.R. - "Back of My Mind" (MBK Entertainment / RCA ***)
Gabriella Wilson got her start as a child star, and since she became H.E.R. in 2016 her career has caught fire, including her showstopping “America the Beautiful” at the Super Bowl this year, her best song Grammy for “I Can’t Breathe,” and her best original song Oscar for “Fight for You” from "Judas and the Black Messiah."
But while she’s had a flurry of EPs, she hadn’t released a proper full-length debut. She does so with "Back of My Mind," a 21-song opus on which she’s joined by rappers Lil Baby, YG and Ty Dolla $ign, as well as left-of-center types such as Kaytranada and Thundercat.
Despite the guests, "Back of My Mind" never comes across as anything other than an expression of H.E.R.’s vision. Old-school R&B and soul virtues are valorized without ever sounding retro or nostalgic, and so is rock — check out her searing solo on “We Made It.”
Eighty minutes of mid-tempo moodiness, however, can be too much of a luxuriously languid good thing. "Back of My Mind" gets samey — to the point that when dependably grating hype man DJ Khaled incongruously pops up on “I Can Have It All,” he’s almost welcome.
But H.E.R.’s debut peaks high. Cases in point include “Bloody Waters,” which rides a Thundercat bass line that evokes Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and “Cheat Code,” in which suspicions of infidelity become more certain as H.E.R.’s voice soars skyward over minimal acoustic guitar. — Dan DeLuca
Hiss Golden Messenger - "Quietly Blowing It" (Merge ***)
Hiss Golden Messenger’s last album, 2019′s Grammy-nominated "Terms of Surrender," was their 11th since their 2008 debut — a prolific pace of an album nearly every year, plus corresponding tours. That led M.C. Taylor, the leader and only constant member, to feel burned out, and in December 2019, he abruptly canceled the last leg of a tour to regroup.
"Quietly Blowing" It is the result, and it’s more a consolidation than a radical reinvention. Taylor is still a master of shuffling Americana, and the album hearkens at times to the sound of Dylan, circa "Blood on the Tracks," or the Grateful Dead, circa "American Beauty."
The band includes members of HGM’s touring ensemble and guests, including Nashville guitar great Buddy Miller, Josh Kaufman of Bonny Light Horseman, members of Dawes, and lap steel player Scott Hirsch, who started HGM with Taylor.
Horns, harmonica, organ, electric piano and backing vocals grace the arrangements, and many songs, such as the bluesy “Mighty Dollar,” hit a groove and stretch out with a coda.
Throughout "Quietly Blowing It," Taylor takes stock, often examining personal and social upheaval, but he’s an optimist at heart. The softly soulful “It Will If We Let It” reassures that “We’re not alone,” and the album fittingly concludes with the gospel-inflected benediction “Sanctuary,” which ranks with HGM’s best. — Steve Klinge
Various Artists - "Party for Joey: A Sweet Relief Tribute to Joey Spampinato" (True North *** 1/2)
The liner notes to "Party for Joey" contain a great quote from Mike Scully, a writer-producer for "The Simpsons" and big NRBQ fan: “If Paul McCartney was from the Bronx, he’d be Joey Spampinato.”
This tribute to the longtime singer and bassist of those offhandedly brilliant cult favorites, who had been seriously ill but is doing better now, supports that claim quite nicely. It showcases Spampinato’s superb, ultra-catchy songwriting and his joyous and seemingly effortless mastery of rock 'n' roll and pop.
The set opens with Spampinato’s former NRBQ mate Al Anderson pile-driving through “You Can’t Hide” in boisterous Big Al fashion. Among others highlighting Spampinato’s rocking side are Peter Case (“Don’t Knock on My Door”), the Minus 5 (“Don’t She Look Good”) and Bonnie Raitt leading the current incarnation of NRBQ (“Green Lights”).
The most star-laden track, “Like a Locomotive” — Ben Harper fronting Keith Richards, Don Was, Charlie Musselwhite and Benmont Tench — reveals Spampinato’s ability to create an insistently infectious groove, as does Deer Tick’s “That I Get Back Home.” Adding some country flavor are Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale with “How Will I Know” and Robbie Fulks with “Chores.”
Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin bop through the hook-heavy pop of “Every Boy Every Girl,” while Spampinato the sweet and tender balladeer is represented by She & Him’s dreamily atmospheric “How Can I Make You Love Me” and Spampinato himself with his wife, Kami Lyle, on “First Crush.”
Amid their wide-ranging musical virtuosity, Spampinato and NRBQ have always had an endearingly whimsical and goofy element, and Penn & Teller nod to that with “Plenty of Somethin’.” Spampinato’s talents have even prompted the usually silent Teller to speak. — Nick Cristiano
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