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Famous fam: These LA artists have deep musical roots

Artist Nombe
Artist Nombe

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Every week, Take Two's music reviewers give us a taste of what's new in our weekly segment, Tuesday Reviewsday. This week, Steve Hochman shares songs by LA artists who are no strangers to the music biz. 

Artist: Leah James
Album: “While She Sleeps”
Songs: “That Fateful Day,” “The Desert”
Release date: March 30

Leah James
Leah James
Leah James

Leah James is pretty accustomed to the tabloid tumult. Her father Don Felder co-founded the Eagles and maintained an uneasy relationship with bandmates before (and after) being fired from the reunited group in the early 2000s when his daughter was but a child. Even more so, she’s married to Brandon Jenner, son of Caitlyn Jenner, making her part of the Kardashian clan and all that entails.

Perhaps the dreamy, atmospheric calm of her debut solo album could be seen as a reaction to (or oasis from) the celebrity family whirlwinds. And more so for her, than for her new daughter, Eva, she titled the album, “While She Sleeps.” 

On the one hand, the album was inspired by Eva’s arrival and James’ new role as a mother. On the other hand, the making of it, some of which took place during respites from motherhood that the title denotes, provided some healthy “me time” for the new mommy, who ensconced herself for writing sessions in a yurt in the yard of her L.A. home. (Hey, we’ve got yacht rock, why not yurt rock?)

It projects wishes for her daughter’s life to come. The songs here, she has said, explore family, femininity, and independence — “an album that both supports and encourages women with every word.” But for that sweeping intent, the key to the music is intimacy, a mix of sweetness and concern for her young’ un. 

The two swirl together in the opening song, “That Fateful Day,” as in life, her caressing vocal surrounded by acoustic guitar, dramatic strings, pulsing electronics and a trumpet (from Tower of Power’s Bill Churchville) straight out of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western score. “You carried me home,” she sings, as if the roles are reversed, the child bringing the mother to a place of belonging. 

Variations on that mix follow: “Love Me With Madness” tilting more to the sweet, but still tinged with emotional precariousness. “My Love Will Follow” couches its promise with wistful melancholy. “The Desert” alternates from spare verses to lush choruses with echoes of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector, via Kate Bush or Mazzy Star, whose dreamy SoCal space-country she at times evokes — the arid plains of the titular landscape conjured with help from such friends as Greg Leisz on haunting steel guitar and James' husband (with whom she has previously recorded some under the duo name Brandon & Leah) on various instruments.

Expansive nature references abound throughout — “Wildfire,” “New Moon,” “Big Sur.” But James, purposefully not using her dad’s last name or her husband’s, but going with something just hers, creates her own sonic shelter at once safe in its solitude and invitingly cozy. Like a yurt. Or a mother’s feelings for her child.

Artist: Joachim Cooder
Album: “Fuchsia Machu Pichu”
Songs: “Gaviota Drive,” “Fuchsia Machu Picchu”
Release date: March 30

Joachim Cooder
Joachim Cooder
Joachim Cooder

There's a lot in common between this and Leah James’ album. Joachim Cooder, too, is the child of a Los Angeles musical icon, guitarist/composer/ethnomusicologist Ry Cooder. And family, including a new child, figures heavily in this, Joachim’s first solo album. On the lovely, sentimental “Gaviota Drive,” accompanied by his dad as well as his wife, singer Juliette Commagere, and her husband Robert Francis, the younger Cooder sings musings inspired by holding his then-infant child in the quiet of his mother-in-law’s Laguna Beach home as the sun rose. And the title song “Fuchsia Machu Picchu,” opening the album, is an ode to the first vegetation he planted when he and Commagere moved into their Highland Park home a few years ago.

“Fuchsia Machu Picchu, when will you come and set down roots,” he sings in a conversational tone over the tinkling bell-like sounds of custom-made mbira, the “thumb piano” that’s core to much West and Central African music. “Cause it’s hot in this city, tonight’s a supermoon.”

The music reflects that, with an earthy-cosmic blend of elliptical rhythms and his elastically conversational voice. The distinctive core sonic motif is the shimmering bell-like sounds of Cooder’s electronics-enhanced version of a mbira, the African “thumb piano,” custom-made by the San Diego-based Array instruments firm. The sound perfectly captures and personalizes the influences of an extended musical family, such vaunted figures as the Cuban legends who made up the Buena Vista Social Club and the late Malian guitar god Ali Farka Touré, with whom he worked starting in his youth alongside his father as a percussionist and, later, co-producer. One member of that extended family, Vieux Farka Touré, son of Ali Farka, adds guitar to the floating, equatorial “Because the Moonlight.” It’s a perfect touch on an album of songs that embrace the whole of the world while focusing on the most intimate moments of life.

Artist: NoMBe
Album: “They Might’ve 
Even Loved Me”
Songs: “Freak Like Me,” “Can’t Catch Me”
Release date: March 23

Artist Nombe
Artist Nombe

Continuing with the family theme, and famous family at that, Noah McBeth has one of R&B’s greats as his godmother: Chaka Khan. Under the performing name NoMBe — pronounced Gnome-bay — he celebrates her influence here in his debut album with a wide-ranging set of soul-rock-funk-psychedelic nuggets. Not that it sounds like Khan, but it shows her impact in terms of the command, confidence and reach she has shown throughout her career. As such, she’s something of the godmother not just of the artist, but of the album. 

Each of the songs on “They Might’ve Even Loved Me” is inspired by one of the powerful women who has had an impact on him through his life — family, friends, lovers and all. Fittingly, he took a diary approach to the release of the music, one song a month sent out digitally over the course of the last year. Along the way the songs caught the ears of such figures as Pharrell Williams and, bringing it all full circle, Kylie Jenner, who championed his work on social and other media — Williams picked the frisky rocker “Can’t Catch Me” for the theme of his HBO documentary series “Outpost.” 

Now a dozen songs, plus three more, have been put together as this album, and if we don’t know the stories behind each song, perhaps, the whole tells the story of an artist on his own path. He took his own path, born and raised in Germany, and first coming to the U.S. in 2010 when a school theater class made a trip to Las Vegas for a performance. Now 26, he’s made his home in L.A. and is set to hone his musical skills.

There’s no one sound with which to identify him. Each song, presumably like each inspiring woman, has its own character. Opener “Wait” rides a bouncy pulse.  “Sex” is sultry, seductive modern soul (preceded by an intro poem). “Rocky Horror” is, contrary to the title, a sweet acoustic ode dedicated to his mother— he says he wrote it without having seen the movie but only having read a summary. “Summer’s Gone” is hazy rap-pop (in a Sublime mode) to a love that ended with the season. Comparisons are hard to make, though certainly, Prince was a big influence on his range and studio obsessions. The swampy funk of “Freak Like Me” is particularly Prince-ly, both in the suggestiveness and the fuzzed guitar lines. And now he’s taking the music out of the studio, having assembled a band of three young women (also as Prince did with his 3RDEYEGIRL combo) to bring the songs to life.