Dawn Oberg’s combo of tuneful wit and sharply literate observations evokes the old Algonquin. The Bird and the Bee draws on bubbly pop from more than 30 years ago. And Miguel pays homage to some heroes of his youth more than two decades ago. And yet, with their richly creative new albums, all three make statements very much in, and of, the moment.
Dawn Oberg, Bring (Blossom Theory)
Dawn Oberg has a bunch of wry songs, and on her last album at least one "Rye" song. “Martini Geometry” from her new album, "Bring," is a gin-and-vermouth song. And it’s just the tip of the designer ice cube of saloon culture chronicled. Heck, on “Bartender,” she declares the ’keep as “my partner in crime, in killing all my time” and no less than “my best remedy.”
Well, and there’s the distinction and the context. She’s not just killing time, she’s looking for a cure for … well, listen to the songs. But mostly she seeks ways out of aimlessness and uncertainty as she navigates life both inside and, more so, outside the barroom.
But the stool is her vantage point and clearly she’s doing more than drinking, but also a lot of honing her literary skills in observations of her fellow ’flies. In the past that’s earned her comparisons to such fine fellows as Randy Newman (including from this writer). But now the San Franciscan brings to mind a line of tuneful cultural anthropologists, from Van Dyke Parks to New York jazz wit Blossom Dearie (and Oberg’s voice, while very different from Dearie’s coo, is equally distinct for its conversational naturalism). And through Dearie, we may as well draw a line right back to the heart of the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker herself.
As with Parker, it’s not all tipsy witticisms. There are at least two references on this short album to upchucking (at least one of those directly related to drinking), and other consequences are there both explicitly and implicitly.
Where in solo shows she has that intellectual piano bar thing going, the album expands the picture with some colorful instrumental support and range of arrangements, from the sax and vibes on “Martini Geometry” to the California rock of the title song to the dreamy lilt of “Gwen” (looking back on an old friendship lost to time) and the exhilarating rush of “Incantation.”
She does look up and outside at least once, with the sarcastic closer “Republican Jesus,” mocking the seemed-ownership of the figure by certain sociopolitical sectors. It’s as smartly done as the rest, but frankly she’s at her best when her flights start from a more finely focused place, even if just a conical glass in front of her.
Miguel, Wildheart (RCA)
What a year so far in what, for wont and dire need of a better term, we must call the new L.A. urban music scene. First Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking, ear-opening "To Pimp a Butterfly," then Kamasi Washington’s 3-CD jazz epic, "Epic." And now comes an album of deep, personal imagination and emotional resonance from San Pedro’s Miguel.
It's not a total surprise. He has not only made two impressive and chart-hit albums before this, but he’s also become one of the most in-demand writer-producers for a range of artists, Usher and Asher Roth among them -- not to mention taking the 2013 best R&B song Grammy Award for “Adorn.”
But this feels like a major artistic statement, kicking off with the pulsating beacon “a beautiful exit” (yes, lower case, as are most of the titles), the title contrasted with the sense of something new being entered.
Half African-American, half Mexican-American, Miguel Jontel Pimentel draws strongly from both heritages here, but goes so much farther, fully encompassing the scope of the L.A. region with rock, R&B, jazz, hip-hop -- all at his command in a blend that transcends any of them.
It’s very much an album of time and place, or places, literally, with the finely painted portraits of “the valley” and “Hollywood Dreams” sharing complementary viewpoints, each at once full of unbridled hope and jaded cynicism. The latter in particular throws away the notion of format and genre and invites all comers to his comprehensive, engaging vision. Not to mention that it's all pretty, well, sexy.
And then there’s “NWA,” a tribute to the essential Compton troupe of the ’90s hip-hop explosion. Rather than try to sound like NWA (featuring rapper Kurupt) even in the least, he fashions whatever inspiration he took from them into something new, something his own, an atmosphere and sound as true to him and to today as that group was to itself and its time.
Which really is what a great artist is supposed to do. And bringing it all back around at the end is “face the sun,” with guest Lenny Kravitz, setting up a whole new beginning for next time.
The Bird and The Bee, Recreational Love (Rostrum)
"Recreational Love," the new album from The Bird and The Bee, is a perfect summer soundtrack — for the summer of ’82. In London. If this music doesn’t make you think of Human League, the Thompson Twins and Bananarama, well, you probably weren’t born then.
And yet, with the song “Los Angeles,” the duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin put their (and our) attention very much on today. In, well, Los Angeles. It’s personal, a song inspired by an ex-boyfriend of George’s who wouldn’t accept the fact that she is really, truly from L.A. And it’s that in-the-moment quality that keeps The Bird and The Bee from seeming retro, whatever era the rounds may evoke.
It’s a nice trick, worked not just through the words, but through George’s very-present voice and Kurstin’s clear production, devoid of any nostalgia haze or time-displacement irony.
Simply finding moments to be in together is tricky enough for these two. George keeps herself pretty busy as part of the Living Sisters, in collaborations with Van Dyke Parks and on her own solo projects. Last year she also put together a series of all-star shows at Largo, paying tribute to L.A. songwriters she thought deserved more attention.
Kurstin, meanwhile, has become an elite, Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter on the global pop scene, working of late with Sia, Lykke Li and Charli XCX, among others. Oh, then there’s parenthood. Their respective broods have grown (three young kids for her, two for him) in the five years since the last The Bird and The Bee release. That one also glanced back, being a dance-y tribute to Hall Oates.
The album was made in bursts of brief get-togethers, mostly on Friday mornings, so it’s understandable that there is some sense of an oasis escape in the sounds, and at times in the lyrics.
And it’s hard not to be swept up in it, whether in the frothy “Will You Dance?” (accompanied by a fun video featuring “The Big Bang Theory” star Simon Helberg and comedian Patton Oswalt). Or as George dreams in “Doctor,” of finding relief in “pills and love,” all over shiny beats that Kurstin makes sound as fresh as they did way back then, in some summer when these two 40-somethings were mere tykes.