MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Jessie Wagner, Loma and MORE

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

You might have encountered Jessie Wagner fronting her NYC-based rock and soul band Army of the Underdog. Or maybe you caught her as a backing vocalist in the touring bands of artists like Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Chic, Lenny Kravitz, or Duran Duran, among others. But now she steps out on her own with her first solo album, Shoes Droppin’ (Wicked Cool Records). It was, in fact, Wagner’s gig with Stevie Van Zandt that led to her being signed to his own label; he calls her an artist whose “music is eclectic and unique and impossible to categorize.” Which is what makes her album such a pleasure to listen to.

Shoes Droppin’ opens with the gospel fervor of the title track, which is based on Wagner’s own experiences in coping with the sudden ill health of a loved one, a situation that resonates even deeper today. “What have I done to deserve all this?” goes the song’s recurrent plea, matched by a wailing harmonica. But it’s a song rooted in strength; Wagner sings lyrics like “This burden has gotten too hard to bear/Tell me Lord, are you still there?” with such force, it’s clear she’s not going anywhere until she gets an answer. The thoughtful “Caretaker” honestly addresses the difficulties that arise when one has to step in that role. Balancing the angst is “Lover’s Lullaby,” a hopeful, gentle number offering comfort.

Wagner cites Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings as influences on “End of Time” and “My Darlin’, My Dear,” respectively, and she certainly hits the same retro-soul/jazz vibe that they do. She’s at turns introspective; “Great One” is an acoustically driven piece about artistic insecurity, a topic that’s also the theme of “Passin’ Me By,” something you might overlook as you’re carried along by the buoyant brass arrangement. Horns are even more to the forefront in “Over and Over,” a playful number about succumbing to temptation; “You might be the one to change my ways,” she teases. She closes with another confessional number, “What You Get,” a song about admitting one’s faults and vowing to do better, with the brisk beat underscoring its mood of forgiveness. Wagner’s warm, rich voice is a versatile instrument, making her able to navigate the realms of rock, soul, and jazz with ease. It’s a personal record, but one that has stories that everyone can relate to.

The music of Loma is the perfect musical accompaniment as the heat of summer gives way to the coolness of fall. It’s enigmatic, and a bit mysterious, creating a sense of anticipation for what might come next. Then there’s the album’s title, Don’t Shy Away (Sub Pop). It’s something that extends an invitation: don’t be afraid, come inside.

Loma was something of a side project between Cross Record’s Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski, and Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg (Cross sings, and all three members play instruments). The group released a self-titled album in 2018, followed by a tour that climaxed with a set at Sub Pop’s SPF 30 festival (celebrating the label’s 30th anniversary). The band thought the show might be their last; as Cross put it, “It was the biggest audience we’d ever had. We thought, why not stop here?” But after they’d gone their separate ways, they found they missed each other. They also got a bit of unexpected inspiration when they learned that Brian Eno told a BBC radio listenership that he kept the band’s “Black Willow” on repeat. So what else could they do but reconvene?

This is an album that casts its spell in a slow, insinuating fashion. “Fix My Gaze” is the stark, cryptic, opener, Cross’ clear, high voice set against the spare instrumentation. This song of imprisonment leads naturally to “Ocotillo,” a droning, modern day road song, the steady beat eventually giving way to a cacophonous clatter as Cross celebrates her freedom: “All my ties are broken, I’m in wonderful disarray,” taking that last syllable up to the sky. Despite the omnipresence of synthesizers, there’s a strong organic feel to the record thanks to piano and violin, Cross’ clarinet, and the gorgeous harmonies of songs like “Thorn” and “Elliptical Days.” Appropriately, the final touch was given to Eno, who mixed the closing track, “Homing,” a number offering the calming feeling of a prayer. This album works like a tonic on the restless mind, drawing you in and leaving you refreshed.

Right Back Where We Started From: Female Pop & Soul in Seventies Britain (RPM Records) is the natural follow up to the label’s earlier set, Am I Dreaming? 80 Brit Girls Sounds of the Sixties. The title track is Maxine Nightingale’s soul pop classic that became an international hit, and sets the stage for a collection of enticing treats.

Well-known names pop up throughout. Yvonne Elliman, whose hits include “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “If I Can’t Have You,” shows off her harder-rocking side on a cover of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” (with Pete Townshend on guitar). Dusty Springfield’s sublime rendition of “Spooky” is a masterclass in sophisticated cool. There’s the unexpected delight of discovering that Eartha Kitt actually covered Donovan (“Hurdy Gurdy Man”). Fans of the stylish ‘60s TV series The Avengers will note the name of Linda Thorson, who played “Tara King” on the show, delving into dreamy pop on “You Will Want Me.”

There’s even more fun to be found among the acts that are lesser known (especially in the US). Margie Miller takes the sultry “Fever,” and whips it into an uptempo slice of funk that’s irresistible (record collectors have paid over $100 for this single, so it’s great to have it available on a more reasonably priced collection). A powerful, versatile singer, Miller also appears on the poppy “Ninety-Nine Ways,” originally released under the alias Etta Thomas. Ruth Swann gives a Motown-flavored spin to “Tainted Love” (originally recorded by Gloria Jones; Soft Cell’s cover came in 1981). The wonderfully named Mother Trucker come on all bold and brassy on “Explosion in My Soul.” And you will never hear “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” the same way again once you hear the absolutely killer version by the Chanter Sisters, who also appear on this set credited as Birds of a Feather, burning their way through “Leaving the Ghetto.” As an added bonus, RPM’s usual great liner notes are packed with information.