What to listen to now: Thundercat, Ella Mai, José James and Guy Clark
A weekly roundup of must-hear music from The Times’ music staff. This week’s picks include the latest from beloved, funk-leaning local star Thundercat, as well as works from Ella Mai, José James and Guy Clark.
Thundercat, “Drunk” (Brainfeeder)
Although the artist’s primary instrument is the electric bass, he’s not the kind to rely on your standard four-string variety. Rather, the expert player, best known for his work with Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, maneuvers across five- and six-string basses on his wild new album “Drunk.” Which is to say, don’t expect conformity to spring from his strings.
At heart a funk album, “Drunk” contains multitudes. Echoes of Frank Zappa’s weird early-’70s records, Parliament-Funkadelic’s cosmic energy, Miles Davis’ experimental fusion years and classic King Crimson permeate the 23 songs. Complicated time signatures abound, but rather than extended jams, Thundercat keeps his songs short. Only a few surpass the three-minute mark, and the shortest, “I Am Crazy,” clocks in at a mere 25 seconds.
“Where would we be if we couldn’t tweet,” Thundercat sarcastically wonders on “Bus in These Streets,” about technology, social media and their effects on human interaction. He meows his way through “A Fan’s Mail (Tron II),” which is a sequel to his earlier “Tron Song,” about his cat. On “Show You the Way,” Thundercat taps Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins for vocal duties. “Walk On By,” which features Lamar, is a pokey song driven by a synthetic beat, layers of Thundercat’s falsetto and Lamar’s rapped verse. — Randall Roberts
Ella Mai, “Ready” (10 Summers)
For years DJ Mustard’s productions have dominated L.A. radio and yielded platinum hits for YG, Jeremih, Ty Dolla Sign, Big Sean and Rihanna.
That same frosty, minimalist beat-making drives Mai’s EP “Ready.” The British singer, who is signed to Mustard’s 10 Summers imprint, brings a sweet and sultry edge to her mentor’s hard-hitting and deliriously catchy beats. The final installment in a trilogy of EPs released by the singer over the last year, “Ready” distills her views on lust, love and heartbreak through some seriously bouncy trap records. — Gerrick D. Kennedy
José James, “Love in a Time of Madness” (Blue Note)
This smooth-voiced crooner broke out in 2013 with “No Beginning No End,” a coolly assured synthesis of jazz and soul that reflected his appealingly holistic view of American music. Since then, though, James has been emphasizing the individual strands of his sound, first with a rock-leaning record long on Hendrix-style guitar, then with a stripped-down album of songs popularized by Billie Holiday.
His latest presents James as a futuristic R&B seducer, and if the crisp electronic production doesn’t always flatter his behind-the-beat phrasing, it’s still a kick to hear him go for it in the Prince-indebted “Last Night” and “Ladies Man.” — Mikael Wood
Guy Clark, “The Best of the Dualtone Years” (Dualtone).
The celebrated Texas troubadour, who died last year at 74, bounced from one record label to another over the course of his 40-plus year career, never scoring major commercial success but earning deep respect from fellow musicians and music aficionados for his great songwriting gift.
This two-disc set samples his latter-day work at Dualtone, where he arrived in 2009, but also includes some of his greatest earlier songs — “L.A. Freeway,” “Homegrown Tomatoes,” “The Randall Knife” — through live recordings that Dualtone issued. What emerges yet again is his deceptively downhome way of dropping pearls of wisdom into seemingly mundane scenarios, with plainspoken humor, with poignancy, with uncommon insight, and sometimes all three at once. — Randy Lewis
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