Sunny War, "With the Sun" (Hen House). Those who hang out around Venice Beach or hit L.A.-area farmers markets at some point may have paused to admire Sunny War's way with a guitar.
The artist, born Sydney Ward, has been busking around town for close to a decade now — no small feat considering she's only in her mid-20s.
A transfixing instrumentalist and singer whose first love, the country blues of the Mississippi Delta, informs her finger and fret-board maneuvers, War can likely outplay your favorite guitar god, and the proof is all over "With the Sun."
Self-taught, she told the writer Michael Simmons when she was 18 that "I have tricks that I do and my own system for every chord." Eight years later, when she plays, those tricks are now full-blown spectacles.
Her voice is just as dexterous. War works with a lilting vibrato that recalls the great jazz vocalists of the 1950s. A self-described street singer who has long earned her keep one day at a time through song, War has since played punk gigs at the Smell and toured with the great Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo.
Along the way War has mastered lyric writing, a tool now as keen as her fretwork. In "Gotta Live It," she beams in on addiction until it burns: "I'm a slave and a victim/Digging my own grave for the system," she sings, cutting into the truth that "I'll pay rent someplace I'll never own" and cussing that, while still young, "I'm too old not to know when I've been … around."
Across the remarkable record, War opts for sparse instrumentation focused on graceful violin melodies, a choice that echoes the moaning pre-War blues of the Mississippi Sheiks. But "With the Sun" is hardly a throwback. Like contemporary English singer, songwriter and guitarist Michael Kiwanuke, she's tapping the depths for inspiration, bringing into the here-and-now the essence of the elemental.
Khruangbin, "Con Todo El Mundo" (Dead Oceans). Texas expats who recently relocated to Los Angeles, this mostly instrumental three-piece is a global concern in the purest sense of the word. Inspired by the wild 1960s rock and roll movement of Thailand, the band fuses those guitar tones and buoyant rhythms with the sounds of Mexico, America, West Africa and pretty much everywhere else.
Its second album, "Con Todo El Mundo," also recalls the early 1980s New York post-disco of ESG and Liquid Liquid. The result is a border-blurring convergence, one likely to propel whatever dance floor is lucky enough to receive it.
The video for "Maria Tambien" is a testament to the group's vision: It features scenes of Iranian women enjoying seemingly boundless freedom before the 1979 revolution. According to the clip's notes, "The women in the video are all part of a large network of artists, singers, dancers and songwriters who have been either exiled or silenced since the revolution."
Van William, "Countries" (Fantasy/Concord). The first solo album from the founder of Los Angeles bands Port O'Brien and Waters is a brash, confident folk rock statement that affirms William's place in contemporary L.A. song craft.
At times recalling Tom Petty's graceful way of building verses and bridges until they align as neatly as the seams on an Audi, William is less interested in exploring the next hot scene than getting dirty on the same ground as generations of canyon-centric writers.
His song titles alone confirm his scope: "Fourth of July," "Revolution" and "The Country" suggest an artist willing to plant a stake wherever he wants — the Beatles ("Revolution") and X ("Fourth of July") be damned.
And being damned is a big part of "Countries," which documents a particularly brutal period in William's life. On "The Middle," he sings to an ex about an annual routine: Driving to the place in the country where, sings William, "I watched you lie right to my face."
Like his peers in Dawes -- whose drummer, Griffin Goldsmith, anchors the "Countries" beat -- William is cool with tradition and recorded the album in a way that feels true to a live performance. "Revolution" features Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit singing backup on a song that details a hard breakup.
"I want a revolution/You want a short solution/You never could see eye-to-eye," they sing in unison before concluding, "You wanted retribution/I came to the same conclusion/It's a story old as time."