Diva singer-songwriters by the dozen

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday August 20, 2019
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New albums by (L.-R.) Jenny Lewis, Sharon Van Etten and Cate Le Bon put the diva in diva-licious.
New albums by (L.-R.) Jenny Lewis, Sharon Van Etten and Cate Le Bon put the diva in diva-licious.

There aren't a lot of musicians who have a backstory as fascinating as Jenny Lewis'. A child actress who appeared in the camp flick "Troop Beverly Hills" alongside Shelly Long, and the CBS series "Brooklyn Bridge" alongside Marion Ross, she went on to form the indie pop band Rilo Kiley. Her solo albums, in particular the amazing "The Voyager" from 2014 and her new one "On the Line" (WB), put her in league with brilliant songwriters such as Aimee Mann. "On the Line" feels like an intentional companion piece to "The Voyager." Lewis' ongoing development as a songwriter of note shines through on "Hollywood Lawn," "Wasted Youth," "Party Clown" and the title song.

From the first dramatic notes of "I Told You Everything," then the "holy shit" lyrics, you know that "Remind Me Tomorrow" (Jagjaguwar) by Sharon Van Etten is going to be unlike anything you've ever heard. Van Etten, like contemporaries Mitski and Angel Olsen, is rewriting the singer-songwriter handbook. In sheer musical variety alone, "Remind Me Tomorrow" never fails to dazzle, from the modern balladry of "Jupiter 4" to the dance-floor anthem "Comeback Kid" and the futuristic pop of "No One's Easy To Love," Van Etten has created one of the best albums of 2019.

"Reward" (Mexican Summer) is not only Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon's most accessible album, it's also her best. This is immediately clear on the radiant opener "Miami," as minimalist as it is abundant. A daring pop album buoyed by tunes "Home to You," "Daylight Maters" and "Sad Nudes," Le Bon's album is extremely rewarding indeed.

At the dawn of this decade, a British singer-songwriter named Rumer burst onto the scene and created a stir for the way she sounded like Karen Carpenter. On the sumptuous "Titanic Rising" (Sub Pop), Weyes Blood (aka Natalie Mering) pulls off a similar feat. Effortlessly constructing a nostalgic 1970s sound crossed with a 21st-century mood, the songs on "Titanic Rising" soar. There's not a false move on this accomplished 10-song album, making it difficult to choose favorite songs among "Picture Me Better," "Andromeda" and "A Lot's Gonna Change."

Even if you dig Banks and got hooked on her beginning with her 2014 eponymous debut album, you have to admit you had slog through more than half the record to get to the good stuff on "Beggin' for Thread" and "Bedroom Wall." That's less true of her third album "III" (Harvest), where she wastes little time in doling out attention-grabbing songs. Banks fattens up the sonics with atomic beats and synths on "Stroke," "Gimme," and the gorgeous "What About Love," with string arrangement by queer musician Owen Pallett.

This year seems to be the one in which several female singer-songwriters, such as Soak and Cate Le Bon, are making forward leaps in their music. New Zealand's Aldous Harding is another good example. Her new album "Designer" (4AD) is full of all sorts of aural surprises and delights, ranging from the title cut to "Zoo Eyes," "Pilot" and "Weight of the Planets."

Originally released 25 years ago, newly reissued in an expanded edition including nine bonus tracks, "Garage Orchestra" (Omnivore) by Cindy Lee Berryhill sounds like it could have been recorded just this week. The album's timelessness is to Berryhill's credit and a pleasure for listeners. Berryhill's first album "Who's Gonna Save the World?" was released to acclaim in 1987. She suffered from sophomore slump with the follow-up, then redeemed herself with 1994's "Garage Orchestra." The album is full of Berryhill's unique performance style, which comes through on "Song for Brian," "Gary Handeman" and "Every Someone Tonight."

On "Solutions" (Night Street/Interscope), her third full-length album in five years, K. Flay (aka Kristine Flaherty) continues to straddle the worlds of pop and hip-hop. "Solutions" leans more towards pop. Songs "DNA," "I Like Myself (Most of the Time)" and "This Baby Don't Cry" have the potential to reach a wider audience. "Good News," Flay's first full-fledged dance track, could earn her a following in the queer and club music scenes.

A skilled debut that's a raw, powerful breakup album, Ada Lea's "What We Say in Private" (Saddle Creek) also features some of the singer-songwriter's visual art in its CD booklet. Audio and visual components combine experimentalism with accessibility, and the outcome is compelling on "For Real Now (Not Pretend)," "What Makes Me Sad" and "180 Days." With the right remix, "The Dancer" will have everyone on their feet and dancing.

Those in the know may recognize the name Julia Shapiro from her band Chastity Belt and side-project Childbirth. A fierce feminist voice for her generation, Shapiro was notable for incorporating biting humor and wit into her songs. "Perfect Version" (Hardly Art), her solo debut, is something else, more serious and intimate. It's a respectable move on Shapiro's part, best represented in "I Lied," "A Couple Highs" and "Tired."

Katie Toupin is best-known as the member of her former band Houndmouth. Questionable album cover art aside, Toupin's solo debut "Magnetic Moves" (katietoupinmusic.com) will attract listeners on the strength of her voice and songwriting abilities. Knockout numbers include "The Hills Are Calling," the retro "Someone to You" and the title cut.

Led by the divine Davina Lozier, Davina and the Vagabonds may be based in the Twin Cities, but their sound and style are pure New Orleans. Sweet and sticky as a warm beignet, "Sugar Drops" (Red House) picks up where Fitz & The Tantrums left off, with the benefit of Davina's dynamic pipes. Delectable original tunes include "Little Miss Moonshine," "Devil Horns" and "Magic Kisses." The deluxe edition CD features five bonus tracks, including a cover of Nina Simone's "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl."