What to listen to now: SZA, Bleachers, Secret Sisters and more
A look at must-hear, recently released music, as chosen by The Times’ pop staff.
SZA, “Ctrl” (Top Dawg Entertainment / RCA)
For the record:
5:56 p.m. Oct. 18, 2021An earlier edition of this post misspelled Brandi Carlile’s name as Carlisle.
Falling into music after walking away from studying marine biology, SZA — born Solȧna Rowe — released a pair of mix-tapes before she became the lone female voice of L.A. hip-hop powerhouse Top Dawg Entertainment and delivered her breakout 2014 EP, “Z.”
“Ctrl,” like her earlier work, sees SZA navigating the complexities of love, sexual freedom, family, personal growth and self-esteem through the gaze of a woman who grew up in an Orthodox Muslim home. The records are tender, vulnerable and often defiant.
Self-doubt and uncertainty are explored with as much depth as lust and loneliness. “Do you even know I’m alive,” she pines on “Anything.” She sings of her desire to be a “Normal Girl,” ruminates on aging on “Prom” and navigates a shared lover on the standout jam “The Weekend.” The music is equal parts aching, brazen and gorgeously honest. — Gerrick D. Kennedy
Bleachers, “Gone Now” (RCA)
Five years ago, Jack Antonoff reached an audience of millions thanks to “We Are Young,” the Grammy-winning No. 1 single by his band Fun. And this week he’s likely to do it again with Friday’s release of “Melodrama,” the highly anticipated Lorde album that he co-produced with that young New Zealand pop star.
Antonoff, who’s also worked in the studio with Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen, won’t reach anywhere near the same number of people with his second semi-solo album under the name Bleachers. But on “Gone Now,” which came out early this month, he sounds only dimly aware of that fact: These are grand-scaled electro-rock anthems that recall the fist-pumping likes of Arcade Fire and Bruce Springsteen even as they confess to an introvert’s anxieties. — Mikael Wood
The Secret Sisters, “You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” (New West)
The third album from Muscle Shoals, Ala.-reared sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers shows no hint of anyone going Hollywood. Here, they’ve turned to Brandi Carlile to co-produce with brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth after being guided on their previous two efforts by their mentor, T Bone Burnett.
If anything, they’ve stripped things down further with hauntingly spare arrangements of songs that revel in Southern Gothic themes, which soar through their exquisite sibling harmonies. The Rogers sisters’ originals often dive deep into consuming all-or-nothing matters of the heart and the myriad emotions associated with home and all it conveys. They apply their ethereal voices to Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song,” his gorgeous early ode to a faraway love. The purity of intention and execution is palpable. — Randy Lewis
Joan Shelley, “Joan Shelley” (No Quarter)
Amid today’s onslaught of breaking news notifications , it’s comforting to know that this Louisville singer and songwriter’s brand of pastoral beauty is out there. Shelley’s new album continues her focus on earthen themes that are as relevant today as they were centuries ago when another Shelley, poet Percy Bysshe, was romanticizing them: love and desire, dawning and fading light, natural beauty and the delicacy of emotion.
Produced by Jeff Tweedy of the rock band Wilco, Shelley’s 11 songs highlight her precise vocal and guitar melodies and express a desire, as she writes in “If the Storms Never Came,” to “plant in rows the fruit you want/ Train hands to push the clay/ And pull in close, you feed the ones/ You don’t want far away.”
Behind her, Tweedy offers meditative bass lines, his drummer-son Spencer taps out understated rhythms, guitarist Nathan Salsburg adds labyrinthine lines and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington switches between piano and resonator guitar.
Like her excellent previous album, “Over and Even” (2015), Shelley’s new one is a subtle venture that requires focused listening — put down your phone — to fully appreciate. In such a habitat, the songs blossom with a lushness akin to the themes that occupy her lyrical world — “widening skies,” “your head across my thigh” and “your creases and your lines.” — Randall Roberts
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