Album reviews: The Last Poets, Snail Mail, Joshua Hedley

Lush by Snail Mail

The Last Poets
Understand What Black Is
(Studio Rockers ****)

Many artists lay claim to being rap’s first voices, but, from their searing, socio-political charged poetry to their dense, rhythmic flow, the Last Poets aren’t just boasting. Touched by jazz, funk, and reggae through different periods of the band’s 50-year career, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Omar Ben Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole created forceful, realistic, imagery-rich portraits of inner city life, tinged with spiritual potential and hope for black Americans, young and old. Nuriddin passed away on June 4, 2018, and was not a physical part of the Poets first album in two decades, but his revolutionary spirit can be found within each deep breath of Understand What Black Is.

Inspired to record once more by Donald Trump’s presidency and the hail of daily gunfire killing black youths, Hassan and Oyewole cackle with rancor on “How Many Bullets” and “Rain of Terror,” two ragga-tinged cuts where the only thing louder than its cries of injustice are its free-jazz blowing trumpets. For every gunshot fired and a horn’s violent bleat, there is hope in the eyes of the last of the Last Poets. While Hassan and Oyewole turn “What I Want To See” into a nirvana-seeking home away from harm and harassers who obscure all faith, the new album’s title track prays for conviction and assimilation beyond color blindness, with lines such as “black is a hero, not a villain.” — A.D. Amorosi

Snail Mail
(Matador *** 1/2)
Teenage angst often powers great pop music, but it usually arrives in retrospect, with a twentysomething reliving a painful past from a certain remove. Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan is still 19 and in the thick of it, and what’s remarkable about Lush is the clarity with which she delineates the experience of all-encompassing heartache and her particular process of becoming. “It just feels like the same party every weekend,” the Baltimore guitarist and songwriter sings on the quietly jolting “Pristine.” “Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?” It sure does, and Jordan, with the aid of bandmates Alex Bass (on bass, naturally) and Ray Brown (on drums) and producer Jake Aron (who’s worked with Grizzly Bear and Solange) captures the overbearing pressure of being unable to escape your own feelings. Not that Lush wallows in weepiness: It’s a tough-minded set in which Jordan, who reprises her role as a left-winger on her high school ice hockey team in the video for “Heat Wave,” delivers clean, sturdy, and subtly catchy songs that don’t wilt under the weight of not knowing what the future holds. — Dan DeLuca

Snail Mail plays Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 14. $13-$15. 215-232-2100.

Joshua Hedley
Mr. Jukebox
(Third Man ***½)

Jack White sure can pick ’em. (In truth, we like the people he likes better than we do his own music.) Joshua Hedley is the latest to release an album on White’s Third Man Records, and the rocker/label owner didn’t have to go far to find him. The singer and fiddler has been a barroom staple in Nashville, and a favorite of the town’s working musicians.

Mr. Jukebox heralds the arrival of an outstanding country throwback. At first listen, Hedley seems to have sprung straight from the ’60s or early ’70s. A lot of that has to do with his songwriting. His originals have a classic quality, as if they couldn’t possibly be new. The dreamy ballad “Let’s Take a Vacation” even has a hushed recitation.

Listen closely, though, and you’ll hear an artist cannily carving out his own niche. It’s mostly in the way Hedley melds strains of hard country, heavy on steel guitar and fiddle, with those of the more urbane countrypolitan style, featuring strings and female backup singers. And he proves equally adept at up-tempo shuffles such as the title song and “This Time,” and aching ballads such as the set-opening “Counting All My Tears” and the dramatic “Don’t Waste Your Tears.” Like that “Mr. Jukebox” he pays tribute to, he seems to have songs that suit any mood you might be in. — Nick Cristiano