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New music from Southern California's Joe Henry, Ella Vos and more




Singer/songwriter Ella Vos
Singer/songwriter Ella Vos

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Every week we get a preview of new music for the week. This week music journalist Steve Hochman reviews his picks. 

Joe Henry (album: “Thrum”)

Songs: “The Dark Is Light Enough,” “Believer”

The question for many artists in our confounding times is just how to respond, as artists, to our, well, confounding times. Anger? Avoidance? Cynicism? Hysteria? Grief? Calls to arms?

Veteran Los Angeles musician and producer Joe Henry has responded with optimism, with hope.

The song “The Dark is Light Enough” is a reminder to breathe, to not be discouraged, to not be blinded by rage, but to let your eyes adjust and see. If that sounds all Zen, it’s a Zen informed by some great works of modern music and literature. The influences range from Blind Willie Johnson’s stark blues impressionist “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” to Bob Dylan’s reminder that a setting sun still shines, “Not Dark Yet,” to James Baldwin’s meditations on meaning and identity in a world that seems bent on denying both. Baldwin is cited as an inspiration for the song, for that matter.

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Henry, who as an essayist has written about these figures and others with equal measures of intellect and poetic grace, distills all that into a very personal approach with an album that seeks calm and reason as a way to deal with difficult times.

Not that this is a calm album. There is turmoil in it, there is tension, used with great purpose and effect. The music was recorded and mixed live and direct to tape — not digital — at L.A.’s historic United Recording Studio with a band featuring long-time allies David Piltch (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums), Patrick Warren (keyboards) and on some songs the Section String Quartet. That tension, the dynamic musical contours, bring a vividness to the tales the songs tell, of people seeking peace, seeking justice, seeking things they can’t name, for good or bad.

If “The Dark is Light Enough” seeks an anchor in the storm, “Believer,” the album’s first single, is the flip side, a look beyond the veil for illusive comfort and unattainable certainties. The message, perhaps, is summed up in Henry’s liner notes about the recording, a process he called “liberating” in it being “well outside of my control, wild imaginings, and inevitable misgivings. So may it ever be.” Amen.

Ella Vos - (album: “Words I Never Said”)

“You Don’t Know About Me” 

There’s a little irony that one of the most forceful statements by a singer named a year ago by Rolling Stone as one of their “New Artists You Need to Know” is a song titled “You Don’t Know About Me.”  Is the song a challenge? An invitation? The music on Ella Vos's debut album, “Words I Never Said,” is very much the latter. The first song, “White Noise,” had 16 million streams on Spotify after its release last year. The follow-up single, “Down in Flames,” had more than 17 million. Meanwhile, several songs have been used prominently on hit TV shows. So yes, the this young LA musician's work is pretty inviting.

The challenge she sets is for us to reach beyond the musical sheen. For those who do, there’s plenty to discover. Vos had been in several bands around L.A., playing keyboards in BØRNS for example, but never saw herself as a songwriter, until she found out she was pregnant with her son a few years ago. Writing became a way to explore the changes to her sense of self, sense of the world she was experiencing, which intensified as she experienced postpartum depression. “White Noise” came from that, as she struggled to cope with her crying child and her own state of mind, as she almost unconsciously started to sing about the white noise machine by his crib. The rest of the album flowed from there, and from her life since, giving her a way to illuminate and explore her experiences as a young mother, a young woman.

Some have referred to her music as “feminist pop music,” which is perhaps too reductive, but not inaccurate. “You Don’t Know About Me,” she has explained, was a direct response to the release of then-candidate Trump’s “grab them by the [you-know-what]” tape and other news stories such as one of a judge asking a rape victim why she didn’t simply “keep her knees closed.”

What makes it work so well, though, is that the political, and everything else, is always personal. 

Diana Gameros - (album: “Arrullo”)

“Despierta” 

The star of this album, arguably, isn’t really San Francisco singer Gameros, though her gorgeous voice and fine sense of song mark the collection of favorites from her native Mexico. It’s her grandmother, Leonarda Rentería, present not just as a primary inspiration throughout, but in a few scratchy recordings of her singing and talking that punctuate this bracing set. Gameros would often listen to these recordings to provide comfort as she went to sleep. Her mother, Altagracia Estupiñan, is also a star here, duetting with Gameros on one song.

Her birthplace of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is also at the center of this moving album. She was just 13 when her family left there, moving to Michigan as undocumented immigrants, and only recently was she able to return, for the first time in 15 years, having gained legal resident status in the U.S. She was elated to be back, of course, but also shocked and saddened by the state of the city, racked with crime and the brutal war between the drug cartels and the militarized police. All of that provided the grounding for this album, with sounds recorded around Juárez also sprinkled around the songs as linking interludes.

But this is an album of love and warmth, and of family and community and belonging. The album opens on the other end of sleep, with “Despierta,” a popular song written in the mid-1900s by Gabriel Ruiz Galindo. The title means “wake up,” and the song is a gentle dawn serenade usually directed toward a lover, but here, she has said, it’s for her whole family as she greets the day in the city, the song ending with sounds of home and life on the street.

Here she is, performing "¿Cómo Hacer?" at Sofar San Francisco on July 13, 2016.

Her album is like an audio love letter via songs she heard growing up, songs common in many Mexican households: the folktales “Cucurrucucú Paloma” (the title mimicking a dove’s call) and “La Llarona” (the ghostly, mournful “Weeping Woman,” a standard for Dia de Los Muertos events) , the standard “Amorcito Corazón” (“Sweet Love of My Life”), among them, with spare, muted accompaniment by a small group of friends, including clarinet and saxophone player Patrick Wolf.

“Dos Arbolitos” (‘Two Little Trees”) is one she remembers from family sing-alongs when she was growing up. “Tierra Lejana,” medley of songs of longing for love and home, has her backed by the Bay Area ensemble Magik*Magik String Quartet.