Laura Marling, “Semper Femina” (More Alarming)
Ever since singer-guitarist Marling emerged in the mid-’00s as a troubadour associated with fellow Brit new-folk artists such as Mumford & Sons, she’s been tagged an “old soul.” Sounding as though she had seen the world while still a teenager, beginning with her 2008 debut, “Alas, I Cannot Swim,” Marling’s métier was an acoustic sound with a lineage going back to Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny. She broke out of that box, however, with 2015’s electrified “Short Movie.”
“Semper Femina” combines the two approaches. It slips back into the languorous, contemplative mood in which the still-only-27 (and on her sixth album) Marling is most comfortable but still gets dark and stormy, on the clattering opening of “Soothing” and the closing, bluesy ruckus in “Nothing Not Nearly.” Exploring gender issues and femininity, Marling has described the album as “me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them and, by proxy, towards myself.” Produced by Blake Mills, “Semper” subtly expands Marlin’s sonic palette, as she hones her signature approach of maintaining a calm, soothing surface while emotions roil beneath.
DAN DELUCA, Philadelphia Inquirer
The Shins, “Heartworms” (Columbia)
“Port of Morrow,” the last Shins album (2012), lacked the subtle invention and playful quirks of beloved early records such as 2001’s “Oh, Inverted World” and 2003’s “Chutes Too Narrow,” perhaps because James Mercer had jettisoned all other band members. Fortunately, he regains his footing with the joyful and wide-ranging “Heartworms.” The album opens with two heavy-handed, synth-heavy tracks, the feminist “Name for You” and political “Painting a Hole,” but as Mercer lets more space into the mixes, “Heartworms” becomes more inviting. “Fantasy Island” sounds a bit like an early Magnetic Fields song; the zippy “Half a Million” has a catchy melody that leaps and twists and surprises like classic Shins; “Mildenhall” is a country-flavored acoustic ballad about falling in love with a Jesus and Mary Chain tape as a teen. There is plenty to love on “Heartworms.”
STEVE KLINGE, Philadelphia Inquirer
Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Highway” (Nonesuch)
Giddens is trying to break your heart. There is no doubt. The Carolina Chocolate Drops singer’s second solo album is so wrenching that not even her gorgeous voice can provide much comfort. Sometimes, the gut punch is disguised, like in the groovy “Better Get It Right the First Time,” where she uses call-and-response repetition and R&B horn flourishes to pound the lyric “Young man was a good man” into our heads. Then, she delivers the final blow by wailing, “Baby, they shot you anyway” and steps aside for a cutting rap from Justin Harrington. Sometimes, her aim is straightforward, as in the stunning tale of “Julie,” told through the conversation of a slave and her owner as the Union Army arrives at their plantation.
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
• Pitbull, “Climate Change”
• Conor Oberst, “Salutations”
• Rick Ross, “Rather You Than Me”
• Depeche Mode, “Spirit”
• Spoon, “Hot Thoughts”