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New music from Daniela Mercury, Baaba Maal and Aoife O'Donovan

"Magic Hour" from "In the Magic Hour" out Jan 22, 2016.
AoifeODonovanVEVO (via YouTube)

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If you don't have the time to keep up with the latest in new music, we've got the perfect solution for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts come by to talk about the best new tunes in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins host A Martinez with his top picks.

Artist: Aoife O’Donovan
Album: "In the Magic Hour"
Songs: "Magic Hour," "The King of All Birds"

There is a voice that appears at the end of two songs on Aoife O’Donovan’s new album, old and craggy, earthy and real, but somehow, seemingly in the act of disappearing. It’s the voice of her grandfather, who died just as the young singer was starting to write songs for this set. That loss brought to the Massachusetts-raised O’Donovan a flood of memories, of summers spent visiting him and a couple of dozen cousins in the small Irish town of Clonakilty. Here, a recording of his voice on the song "Magic Hour" and the traditional "Donal Og" is not so much a ghost as a beam of muted, fading light, illuminating O’Donovan’s remembrances throughout the album much as a setting sun for visual artists provides what for visual artists is that titular "Magic Hour."

Dusk threads through the album, the second solo set from O’Donovan, who first emerged with the bluegrassy/folky ensemble Crooked Still. Suns seem to be setting, and not just on the two songs in which her grandfather’s voice is heard, fleetingly. Opener "Stanley Park" is all about escaping back to childhood, all the while coming to grips with the passing of time. In the muted waltz "Not the Leaving," she combs through old family photos, a viola played by Eyvind Kang echoing her voice as she sings "It’s not the leaving that’s grieving me so, it’s the thought of you gone."

Many public radio listeners are familiar with O’Donovan, even if they can’t pronounce, or spell, her first name. Even after hearing Garrison Keillor say it on her many "Prairie Home Companion" appearances. Even after she guest-hosted the show along with fellow musicians Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz last October. It’s pronounced EE-fe, for the record.

Whatever which way you say it, the name would likely imply traditional Irish folk music to some, but this Irish-descended singer from Newton, Massachusetts, treads a more Americana territory, having first emerged in the somewhat bluegrassy/folky band Crooked Still. But she’s also been featured with the ensemble Goat Rodeo (a sort of progressive bluegrass-and-beyond project fronted by "Prairie Home Companion" host-to-be Chris Thile and Yo-Yo Ma) and in 2012 on the adventurous album "Be Still" with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas’ quintet exploring themes derived from folk and folk-inspired classical sources.

It’s not hard to hear why she’s gotten that kind of work. She has a gorgeous voice, smooth and lilting, nicely understated yet full of emotion and poetry. It’s also not hard to head what she’s gotten from it. With this, her second solo album, she emerges as a songwriter of grace and beauty to match her voice, and imaginative settings to take that voice into new spaces. Her grandfather is the key presence and inspiration for this, but Watkins, Jarosz and Thile also contribute in guest appearances, as do Nate Query of the Decemberists and the always-exploring string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

And just as present as dusk is its mirror, dawn. It’s trite to say that endings are also beginnings, but it’s true. And each time she examines what’s gone, she asks "What’s next?" Of course, it’s never mundane in her asking, more a poetic musing, and sometimes as much a musical statement as one of words. As such, the centerpiece of the album is "King of All Birds," an effecting meditation with limpid cascades of Brooklyn Rider’s strings (arranged by Gabriel Kahane) bathing her voice, taking the case of a hawk, an owl, a wren, each making a case for it as the avian monarch.  In the expansive music and, particularly, an elastic bass line, though, there’s perhaps a nod in the direction of Joni Mitchell’s wintry portrait of another bird-as-spirit, "Black Crow," soaring regally over a remembered landscape.

Artist: Baaba Maal
Album: "The Traveller"
Songs: "Fulani Rock," "Traveller"

For decades, Senegal’s Baaba Maal has been one of the most passionate and powerful musical advocates for a modern Africa, yet devotedly tied to its traditions. With "Fulani Rock," the opening song of his 11th album, he digs deep into his heritage — his Fulani people are one of the ancient nomadic lines at the heart of the region’s culture. And he does it in a powerful rock context, the rhythms at once ancient (conveyed on a djembe drum by cohort Mamadou Sarr) and right-now (swirls of electric guitars). Most pointedly, he sings in the Fulani language, something in itself often marginalized by modern life:

"Language is a weapon," he writes in the liner note for the song. "I’m not using it to destroy, but to build bridges and bring people together. I am a messenger of the people so every one’s voice can be heard. It is my duty and honour to use my voice to represent my people."

But as with much of Maal’s music, this is not just a West African album, let alone a Fulani one, but a truly international presentation. Much of the album, including "Fulani Rock," was recorded in sessions both in Dakar and London. Producing is Johan Hugo of the young South African rock-influenced band the Very Best, and his and Maal’s global view is heard on such songs as "Lampenda," at once an ode to fisherman (Maal comes from a family of fisherman) and an uplifting anthem of international scope. Despite having words that Maal says cannot be translated into English, the song could stand nicely alongside U2, Coldplay or Mumford and Sons.

For good measure, Mumford’s banjo man Winston Marshall guests on the title song, the result of Hugo bringing Marshall to Maal’s Blues du Fleuve Festival in Northern Senegal back in 2013. In the song "Traveller," Maal’s voice often floats in a cry at once joyful and sad, the banjo (which, of course, is descended from West African origins) an echo of many traditions at once.

The album ends with twin songs "War" and "Peace," both with words written and dramatically, very dramatically, spoken by poet Lemn Sissay, born and raised in England but of Ethiopian heritage and the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics. Language, this time English, is no less a weapon, and the music, this time very traditional-sounding, is no less an embrace reaching across any and all cultural borders.

Artist: Daniela Mercury
Album: "Virtual Vinyl"
Songs: "De Deus, De Alah, De Gilberto Gil," "Minha Mãe, Minha Patria"

The Brazilian star has long been known for bold moves and grand gestures. Just look at the cover of her new album: In an homage to the final portraits Annie Leibowitz shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a day before Lennon’s death, Mercury (naked) embraces her wife, journalist Malu Verçosa (clothed). And one of the album’s key songs is titled "De Deus, De Alah, De Gilberto Gil" — "God, Allah, Gilberto Gil," the latter figure standing as a modern musical god of Brazil and one of her key models and mentors.

As an artist she’s explored many avenues in a truly mercurial career, among other things credited for introducing electronic sounds to the boisterous Carnaval and evoking the controversial "Cannibalist" art movement of the early 20th century with her provocative "Canibália" projects of recent years, her attempt to "reinvent" popular culture via Artistic Cannibalism. She’s also stirred controversy as an advocate for condom use (despite being a devout Catholic) and with several tabloid-level marriages and affairs, not least her coming out as lesbian in 2013 with her relationship with Verçosa. But through it all, she’s become the most popular female Brazilian music artist, selling 20 million albums worldwide and having 14 No. 1 records at home, the most there for a woman.

Against that background, "Virtual Vinyl" is almost a conservative work, starting with the opening "A Rainha de Axé (The Queen of Axé)," axé being a regional sound of her native Bahia. Of course, it’s not totally straightforward, as the subtitle of the song is "Rainha Ma" — "Bad Queen." But the tone it sets is one of bad as in playful, carefree, not destructive. "Tô Samba de Vida (I’m Samba Life)" is another homage to popular music at the heart of Brazil.

Not that it’s all traditional. "Anthropofagicos São Paulistanos" adds hard rock and hip-hop to the percolating rhythms, while in the lilting bossa nova "Frogs in the Sky," she sings of an idealistic vision for making a better world, in English. And the title track, "Vinil Virtual," subtitled "Aperto de Mente (Mind Squeeze)," is sort of experimental jazz with spoken word

All that comes together on "Minha Mãe, Minha Patria (My Mother, My Motherland)," which recalls the Tropicalia adventures of such groundbreakers as Caetano Veloso and, yes, Gilberto Gil, in a joyous celebration.