Natalie Prass, "Natalie Prass" (Space Bomb/Columbia). Richmond, Va.,-based Prass' debut album was released four months ago, which may as well be a decade in the scheme of things. I missed it until a few weeks back — a huge, disclosure-worthy oversight, as Prass' record has since become a singular musical obsession. Consider this a for-the-record correction.
Nine effervescent songs that swirl with brass, strings and Prass' acrobatic voice, "Natalie Prass" surrounds a classic American songsmith with vivid arrangements. She cites composers including Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and Burt Bacharach's work with Dionne Warwick as touchstones, and their influence is apparent. Bacharach's exclamatory arrangements are certainly an influence, but Prass and company are their own thing.
The record was produced by Matthew E. White, himself a top singer and songwriter, along with his collaborator Trey Pollard. They arranged the record with a kind of joyous abandon; strings bounce along with Prass' vivid phrasing, providing counterpoint musical responses. "Christy" has the vibe of a left-field Broadway betrayal ballad. A song in which Prass as narrator obsesses over her ex's new beau, it features tortured monologues punctuated at regular intervals by Prass repeating her name: "Christy." "Why Don't You Believe in Me" grooves like cosmopolitan country music but with a hum of funk driving it. To a song, "Natalie Prass" is magnetic and nearly impossible to resist.
Adrian Sherwood, "Sherwood at the Controls, Vol. 1: 1979-1984 (On U Sound). This British producer is best known for founding On U Sound, the influential label that starting in the early '80s has explored the convergence of Jamaican reggae and dub, African meditations, English post-punk and early synth tones. As a producer, Sherwood's output is unimpeachable, and the evidence permeates this new collection of early productions.
For example, with the guidance of post-punk group the Slits, he delivered heavy bass to go with their oblong tones, co-producing their version of singer John Holt's late-'60s reggae song "Man Next Door." For the acerbic guitar band the Fall, he helped engineer one of their vital early period deconstructions, the "Slates" EP.
Annie Anxiety's "Third Gear Kills" is a beat-based echo fest. Recorded after Annie (born Annie Bandfez) fell in with the English anarchist punk band Crass and then with Sherwood, the track is as strange as it is deep. Experimental beat duo Shreikback's "Mistah Linn He Dead" sounds like a freshly minted hip-hop beat. At the center of all 14 songs are bass and space. Whether with Medium Medium, Vivien Goldman, Maximum Joy or others, Sherwood swims in echo and effects, reveling in the power of reverb, feedback and electronics.
Calexico, "Edge of the Sun" (Anti-). The country, western, mariachi, Americana, folk, rock and post-punk unit Calexico has been releasing albums for 20 years and got its start as a Los Angeles two-man rhythm section for-hire for artists including Giant Sand, Neko Case and Nancy Sinatra. The group, co-founded by singer-guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, exudes a Southwestern vibe, both because of its longtime Tucson base and its membership, which has long featured mariachi horns.
"Edge of the Sun" is Calexico's ninth studio album and finds the band further exploring the nooks of Americana and Mexicana, looking for passageways into new acoustical spaces. It was inspired, the band noted, by a visit to Mexico City, but it's hardly pastiche. "When the Angels Played" has the vibe of mid-1970s "Desire"-era Bob Dylan. A Nashville accent arrives courtesy of the excellent pedal steel player Paul Niehaus, whose forlorn work wends through most songs. On "World Undone," it sounds like a howling ghost.
Guests including Neko Case, Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) and Spanish singer-guitarist Amaro Sanchez add extra heft. Burns has a rural lilt to his voice, and he's using it in new ways. "Cumbia Donde" opens with a mariachi-suggestive synth line and tons of texture, like those classic Mitchell Froom-produced Los Lobos albums of the '90s. As restless as ever, the band is pushing at expectations, exploring without repeating. The result is as engaging and sophisticated as anything in their rich catalog.