New Albums: Estelle; Laura Marling; Nellie McKay

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Nellie McKay: "My Weekly Reader" (From the album cover)

Estelle

True Romance

(Established 1980, Inc./BMG **1/2)

London-born vocalist and songwriter Estelle nearly got lost in the weeds after her 2008 hit "American Boy." That disco-funk smash defined the chanteuse-turned-emcee, leaving her uniquely showy, soulful output in the dust. The same could have happened to True Romance, if not for Estelle's appearance on the Fox hip-hop soap opera Empire, singing her hair-raising empowerment anthem "Conqueror."

Hits aside, what makes Estelle fascinating is that she doesn't stick to one tone or lyrical sensibility (the latter of which could use an upgrade). There's nice-lady, old-school soul ("Silly Girls") and sweetly blissful ballads ("Gotcha Love"), in which Estelle rides the contours like a surfer on a mellow wave. Then, like Mary J. Blige infused with the robotic spirit (and death drone voice) of Grace Jones, she marches through the dub-bass, electro-blips, and naughty lyrics of "Make Her Say (Beat It Up)" and the dirty-talking "Time Share [509]." What's a marketer to do but enjoy Estelle's drive through black music history, touching on the bright reggae of "She Will Love," the Chicago happy-house vibes of "Something Good/Devotion," and the Bacharachian bachelor-pad pop of "All That Matters," a song Dionne Warwick should psychically will for herself.

- A.D. Amorosi

Laura Marling
Short Movie
(Ribbon Music RCA ***)

At age 25, Laura Marling is a veteran. She released her first album of stirring, word-rich acoustic folk songs in 2008, and even in her teens, she seemed more akin to such artists from the late-'60s British folk revival as John Martyn, Sandy Denny, and Nick Drake than to her friends in Mumford & Sons. Her fifth album, Short Movie, grew out of her time living in Los Angeles. The songs are tougher, more tightly structured, and more electric than in the past. Marling has always had an edge, but on Short Movie, she is less likely to cloak it in metaphor or allegory. This is an album overtly rooted in the modern world, especially on the angry "False Hope" and the bitter, profanity-laced "Don't Let Me Bring You Down." Still, the highlights, such as the wistful "Easy" and the Joni Mitchellish "How Can I," are starker, finger-picked numbers anchored in Marling's own rich tradition.

- Steve Klinge

Nellie McKay
My Weekly Reader (Savoy 429 Records ***1/2)

Nellie McKay is an odd, fabulous bird. The onetime resident of the Poconos has thumbed her nose at convention ever since signing with Columbia in 2004 for a first album she wanted to title Penis Envy. Her voice is reminiscent of Annie Ross' elastic, bop-based vocals. McKay's vividly original pop - sometimes politicized by her animal-rights passions - is colored by Bacharach, Brecht, and Irving Berlin, to say nothing of her Beatles touches.

It's only fitting, then, that for a collection of '60s protest and love songs, she enlisted Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who helmed McKay's Get Away From Me debut. In strangely logical fashion, McKay and her ensemble (including guests such as banjoist Béla Fleck and guitarist Dweezil Zappa) find gorgeous harmonies in Frank Zappa's once-angular "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and bent-note blues bliss in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's harmonically rich "Wooden Ships."

McKay offers lovely, theatrical takes of '60s familiars, chestnuts such as the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" and Small Faces' Cockney classic "Itchycoo Park." With gutsiness and panache, she tackles lesser-known pop protests from Richard Farina, Country Joe McDonald, and Alan Price's "Poor People" and "Justice."

- A.D. Amorosi


IN STORES TUESDAY

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit; Van Morrison, Duets: Reworking The Catalogue; Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful; Buena Vista Social Club, Lost and Found