Thundercat (né Stephen Bruner) is a top-shelf guest artist, having loaned his six-string bass and falsetto to Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus. With his solo albums, Thundercat has also carved out and completely inhabited his own patch of land, creating something distinct and stable within pop’s ever-shifting world.
The opening insect sounds on Drunk are telling—not a summer hissing but a nighttime arcadia, an earthy anchor for the spaciness. On “Captain Stupido,” Thundercat dazily chants “I feel weird / Comb your beard, brush your teeth / Still feel weird…” before a mildly insane drum machine breaks in over guitar and keyboards and hypermelodic bass, all of which race through a Steely Dan-on-Jujyfruits bridge. The song crash lands on a snore and a fart and a hokey ta-da ending, “I think I left my wallet at the club…” But Drunk sounds way too clean to be drunk. As a bassist, Thundercat is a total freak, and Drunk is a nonstop workout. His trippy compositions also feature lots of intricate floating-key passages plus a knack for cartoon-yacht-rock songcraft—often united, as on “Bus in These Streets.” Bonus: the cat song “A Fan’s Mail.”
Wild Boy: The Lost Songs of Eden Ahbez (Bear Family)
Nat King Cole’s 1948 recording of “Nature Boy” sold a million copies. The first version I heard was Big Star’s, and it blew my mind, as music and as poetry—it’s a melancholy masterpiece of American song. The small miracle of Wild Boy: The Lost Songs of Eden Ahbez is that the uninspired version by the Talbot Brothers merely allows the remainder of Ahbez’s (admittedly slim) catalog to reveal its quality. A combination of rare originals by Ahbez and interpretations by Eartha Kitt and others, Wild Boy is worthy of the composer’s curious renown.
That renown is staked on the singular accomplishment of “Nature Boy,” along with Ahbez’s mass culture hippie portents, neatly symbolized by his sleeping under the Hollywood sign. Much here combines early exotica vibes with mystic nature child vibes; it’s plenty enjoyable, and a couple of songs transcend: “The Clam Man” boogies like mid-’60s Serge Gainsbourg, and “Anna Was Mine” is haunted by the same wandering spirit as “Nature Boy.” Wild Boy, produced and annotated by one-time Charlottesville resident and WTJU DJ Brian Chidester, finds a deserving release on the storied German label Bear Family.
Semper Femina (More Alarming)
Laura Marling released Alas, I Cannot Swim at 18 in 2008; the record splashed hard into the frothing English music press, and Marling was nominated for the Mercury Prize. In the intervening decade, Marling has simply gone about her business, maintaining an impressive release schedule and earning Brit Awards and more Mercury nominations, while retaining the endorsement of notoriously fickle UK journos.
Marling’s sixth album, Semper Femina, is another sophisticated set of chamber folk that finds her contemplating the bonds of friendship, love and family—there’s a lot of partings, but Marling reminds us we can maintain the ties within us, even after they’re undone. It’s a comforting message, and the music carries no contradicting angst—if anything, this all goes down suspiciously easy. Marling’s voice and phrasing might recall Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, but there’s nothing remotely haunted or knotty in the vocals or melodies. This can happen when your father is a titled aristocrat with a recording studio at his disposal. But even if it feels like Marling is playing her hand carefully, Semper Femina is unfailingly pleasurable, full of delicate touches.