Ty Segall, Lucinda Williams, Anderson .Paak Kick Off 2016's Musical Highlights

Ty Segall, the emotional mugger. (Denee Petracek/Ty Segall)

There's no question 2015 was a fantastic year for California music, with groundbreaking albums from Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and Julia Holter among notable, acclaimed releases.

Can 2016 possibly live up to that? Well, we’re off to a good start, with compelling work from three distinctive artists -- two California Report favorites and an exciting newcomer -- among the highlights so far.

Ty Segall, 'Emotional Mugger'

Following his acclaimed, wide-ranging 2014 tour de force “Manipulator,” the ever-prolific Orange County rock sprite Ty Segall scratched an itch last year with an album collecting his versions of some T. Rex songs titled — what else could it possibly be? — “Ty Rex.”

With “Emotional Mugger,” the proper “Manipulator” follow-up, he shows that the foray into the glam icon’s canon was no mere whim, but rather an exploration of his current headspace. The chunky guitar riffs, the nicely naughty demeanor, the celebration of youth, the preening, it’s all here, Segall-style.

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The album opens with a reference to a Marc Bolan glam-era contemporary, Roxy Music, with footsteps to a car and an engine starting, much as opens Roxy’s “Love is a Drug.” Not that anything here has the Roxy suave, though one could glean a little of the early Roxy experiments with Brian Eno in some of the sonic weirdness.

And ironically, the song that may be the most Bolan-esque, most redolent of London ’71, is “California Hills” — though the dark turns it takes and the little bursts of double-time weirdness in the middle are pure Segall. And the bass line of the title track (medleyed with the very glam “Leopard Priestess”) is very much in keeping with the T./Ty tone. Maybe T. Rex by way of the Residents.

“Candy” — “Candy I want, want your candy” — leans menacing in “Breakfast Eggs.” The sweet-stuff reference returns in “Candy Sam,” the very title suggesting T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam.” And with song there’s no pretense to anything that’s not a Bolan tribute. As such, it’s one of the most engaging, fully realized songs on the album. Though after “Squealer Two” there’s “W.U.O.T.W.S,” a somewhat random-sounding collage (I kept waiting for someone to say, “Number 9 … Number 9 …”). Perversely, perhaps, the album ends with “Magazine,” which is the most realized song on the album, a psychedelic dream and the least Bolan-esque of them all, hinting at the “Manipulator” type range that never really materializes on this album.

Which is OK. This is no “Manipulator” and not meant to be, no career statement, or at least not a big one. Rather it’s another stop on the way, a little fun and strangeness, some rock ’n’ roll jollies, some studio goofing around, nothing to be taken too seriously. Oh wait, maybe that is a statement.

Lucinda Williams, 'The Ghosts of Highway 20'

Lucinda Williams has covered a lot of ground, musically and emotionally, in 35 years or so of recording. But nothing before has been quite like where she goes at the end of this two-CD exploration. The closing “Faith and Grace” plays on for nearly 13 minutes, by the end becoming more a prayer than a song, as guitarist Bill Frisell surrounds Williams’ repeated testaments with curlicues and sparks, like a Van Gogh night sky.

“Faith and Grace will help me run this race,” she sings. And clearly she’s needed it to get through this journey, which started, more than 80 minutes earlier, with words of pure desolation, in the song “Dust”: “There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems black.”

Lighthearted romp this is not. But the ride that comes from there to grace is a rewarding one. Well, it’s Lucinda Williams, so you knew that already.

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams (Photo: David McCalister)

“The Ghosts of Highway 20,” Williams’ second consecutive double-CD, following 2014’s bracingly ambitious “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” is a ride — figuratively along the road that marked her youth in the South, literally through her memories. But as with all of Williams’ best, and this is very much among her best, “Highway 20” is really about the person she is now, wrestling to come to terms with where the road has led her, and most profoundly with losses along the way.

On the one hand, it’s a tour of the South of her youth, the places she lived and saw growing up, so the gothic hues come with the territory. On the other hand, it’s as personal an exploration of emotions and the very fabric of her being as she’s ever done — which is saying a lot.

And it comes with some of the most evocative, involving music she’s ever made. For most of the album, the music centers on the dynamic pairing of guitarists Frisell (one of the most inventive figures in modern jazz, at once lyrical and challenging) and longtime Williams associate Greg Leisz (who plays both conventional guitar and steel, for which he is best known, and also co-produced the album with Williams and Tom Overby). Their prodding interplay both illuminates and elaborates the complex emotions, not necessarily relieving the darkness, but giving it character and shape as they serpentine through songs that are allowed to stretch as called for.

“Death Came,” a wrenching lament for her mother, who died in 2004, is as stark an examination of loss as she’s ever done, which is also saying something. Williams’ talent for distilling complex emotions to the barest perfect words and images, is at its fullest effect here as she places herself between the tangible memories and the unanswerable but essentially human questions. The music here is just as stark, a simple waltz, gently scribed by Frisell and Leisz, with only the slightest support from bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton.

Death is also there in “If My Love Could Kill,” which came from watching her father, poet Miller Williams, fade away with Alzheimer's, a different kind of death. (His real death happened shortly after the release of her last album and the impending loss can be felt throughout it.) Here the emotion is anger, pure and simple. Her voice is rather flat, resigned but seething underneath as she sings, “Murderer of poets…. Destroyer of hope.” Her father is also present in “Dust,” the opening track quoted above, inspired by one of his poems.

The words of two other artists also come into play, with “House of Earth,” music written by Williams to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics, and an effectively spare version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.”

Through it all, the memories of the places of childhood are the sources of salvation, or at least potential salvation, the touchstones of her life. The very Springsteenian “Louisiana Story,” one of several songs with L.A. guitar ace Leisz replacing Frisell, name-checks some of the places where she lived in that state, sketching some scenes right out of Harper Lee or William Faulkner. “If you were from here, you would fear me to the death along with the ghost of Highway 20,” she warns in the title song, before ending on a more hopeful note: “My saving grace is with the ghost of Highway 20.”

Anderson .Paak, “Malibu”

One of the last things you might expect to hear on what is ostensibly a hip-hop album is someone waxing, no pun intended, about surf nostalgia. But there, at the end of “Come Down,” a highlight on the new Anderson .Paak album “Malibu,” a voice intones, “Before Vietnam, when boards were long and hair was short, the center of the surfing world was a place called Malibu.” It’s not .Paak’s voice — it’s from an old documentary or some such. But it’s an intriguing tag that fits an oddly nostalgic thread that runs through the album.

Not sure if this is the real Malibu or a metaphor, though it’s worth noting that .Paak was born Brandon Paak Anderson in Oxnard, just a little up Highway 1 from that famed beach locale.

So no, this isn't N.W.A. But it's also not the Beach Boys. What it is, is an impressively idiosyncratic artistic statement rightfully earning comparisons with Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and various projects coming from the Odd Future collective. Not that it sounds like any of them either. The overall tone echoes early ’70s soul — Stevie Wonder ballads, the Spinners —  mixed with some curved-mirror weirdness, such as the warped-record wobble behind “Lite Weight.”

The bass line and jazzy trumpet in opening “Bird” might bring to mind Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay,” though there’s also some Prince in here, as there is in the next song, “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” with its lower-case sly tone and fuzz-guitar solo. And the lilting “Celebrate” sounds plucked off of early ’70s radio, though the fatalist lyrics sound a bit more now:  “You’re doing pretty well, I mean, you’re not dead. So let’s celebrate while we can.” If the era references are not obvious, there’s Wolfman Jack’s voice popping up at the end of the jumping “Parking Lot.”

But the irresistible “Put Me Through” sounds like a hit for any era from the ’70s on, and more often than not the album is marked by the kind of genre and time-busting music OutKast did at its best. There’s also new confidence here, gained since his 2014 debut, “Venice.” And understandably: This is his first since being tabbed as a rising star by no less than Dr. Dre, who featured him on several tracks from the “Compton” album last year.

Venice? Malibu? What’s next? “Straight Outta Rincon?”

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