Steve Lacy - “Apollo XXI” (3qtr/Columbia *** 1/2)
Just when you think you’ve got the streaming-era, post-everything alt-R&B renaissance pinned, here comes this 21-year-old internet/Kendrick/Vampire Weekend ringer with a sitar opener followed by a nine-minute bi coming-out party. That one has a better intro (“I didn’t wanna make it a big deal / but I did wanna make a song”) than actual lyrics, though; “How many work on self-acceptance like me” could be Logic.
So immerse yourself in the moderately unpredictable music, which tops similarly psychedelic recent efforts by Tyler, the Creator, and Solange if not the virtuosic Flying Lotus. Delights include the sun-warped synths on the catchy “Basement Jack,” the stomping, hi-res guitar ’n’ bass gumbo “Playground,” and the lusty, Shuggie Otis-esque single “N Side.” Lacy’s selling breadth by following an anthemic guitar solo on “Love 2 Fast” with the skillfully finger-picked “Amandla’s Interlude,” a duet with a doleful violin. But when he ends by chanting “outro outro out” over an organ waltz, it’s less quirky-charming than a reminder that he doesn’t yet know what he’s doing. — Dan Weiss
Lee “Scratch” Perry - “Rainford” (On U Sound *** 1/2)
“Rainford” may be dub avatar Lee “Scratch” Perry’s most cohesive and coherent work, a duskily intimate album filled with lilting melodies and shadowy nuance. Those aren’t compliments you usually hear about the 83-year-old dub reggae pioneer. Always an experimentalist, Perry was a manic eccentric who burned down his Black Ark Studio in a fit of pique and who has been called a shaman as often as he has been called a genius.
Provided with a bottom end that’s dense and crisp, and an ambiance both foreboding and open — frequent collaborator and producer Sherwood’s specialties — Perry finds delectable melody all over the place. Though the blaxploitative “Cricket on the Moon,” the science-fiction-funky “African Starship,” and the haunting, up-tempo “Let It Rain” are sonically engaging, hypnotic tunes like “House of Angels” and “Run Evil Spirit” find Perry the lyricist looking at and to God’s higher powers, alternately with anger and adoration. Contradiction, you say? From Lee “Scratch” Perry, you’d expect nothing less. — A.D. Amorosi
Mavis Staples - “We Get By” (Anti- *** 1/2)
Ry Cooder, M. Ward, Jeff Tweedy — Mavis Staples has had fruitful collaborations with all of them in the last decade-plus. For “We Get By,” the gospel-soul queen teams with another illustrious name, the singer and songwriter Ben Harper, who produced the set and wrote all 11 songs. He helps her keep her crown.
Harper doesn’t change anything in the presentation. Staples is still backed by her regular three-piece band, including the great Rick Holmstrom on guitar, and three vocalists. His songs, however, neatly capture the essence of the 79-year-old singer. “I’m a fighter, I’m a lover,” Staples declares on “Anytime,” and we do get both sides. On the urgent, album-opening “Change,” the old social-justice warrior still sees a need for action. On “Brothers and Sisters,” she notes “trouble in the land” and warns, “Something’s got to give.” In the face of all that, the hymnlike title song, a duet with Harper, exudes quiet strength, preaching resiliency with a gentle reassurance.
Balancing those outward-looking numbers are “Never Needed You,” “Stronger,” and “Hard to Leave,” which lay bare her heart on more personal matters.
With the finale, “One More Change,” Staples confesses, “Been holding on too long to let go … Believing too deep to not have faith.” She never specifies what that one change is, but the song nevertheless reveals the undying resolve and optimism behind Staples’ still-inspiring spirit. — Nick Cristiano
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