With his third album, Ugandan-British songwriter Michael Kiwanuka has once again woven together a seamless song cycle that takes its sweet time in expressing hopes, fears, and doubts. Produced by frequent collaborators Danger Mouse and Inflo, "Kiwanuka" bathes the voice of the singer -- depicted as a Tudor king in Markeidric Walker's album cover painting -- in strings and lush atmospherics.
When the slowly unwinding "Cold, Cold Heart" from 2016's Love & Hate was used as intro music to the hit HBO series Big Little Lies, it brought the folk-soul singer a larger audience. Patient Kiwanuka tunes like "Hard to Say Goodbye" and "Light" employ a similar strategy, allowing the listener to luxuriate in the wonders of Kiwanuka's grainy voice, redolent of other genre-fluid soul men like Bill Withers and Terence Trent D'Arby.
But the music retains an anxious edge, as Kiwanuka navigates uncertainty and struggles with self-confidence on songs like "Living in Denial." "Hero" draws inspiration from the life of Black Panther Fred Hampton, slain 50 years ago this December; it's in part about police shootings, then and now, as well as the simple heroism of staying alive and present for those you love. Kiwanuka makes unhurried music that exists outside current trends. That's what makes it so valuable in the here and now. -- Dan DeLuca
"Play the Hits"
(Mondo Mundo/Thirty Tigers 1/2)
When a singer has a voice with the richness, range, and grandeur of Raul Malo's, and he is backed by a band that possesses similar qualities, it figures to be a treat to hear how they put their stamp on familiar material by others. The Mavericks don't disappoint. On "Play the Hits," they Mav-erize 11 numbers, but not with a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, the performances reflect the breadth and thrill of their own music over the last three decades.