Soul music has always been about more than just love. This month’s best soul releases, which includes two fabulous June omissions, move from self-examination—like Jenny Penkin’s endlessly listenable Him, On the Other Hand—to hard-hitting social commentary, like Nu Dust’s debut. Yet every release does one important thing: they remind us that music has the power to illuminate the intricacies of life like few other art forms.
Him, On the Other Hand
There’s no filler on Jenny Penkin’s six-track EP, Him, On the Other Hand. Despite its title, Penkin’s second release is more than songs about men. The Moscow-born, Tel Aviv-based singer takes an intuitive approach to chronicling her recent life, and the results are rich and personal. From the angelic “Daydream” to the alluring jazz-inflected tinge of “Game No Mo,” Penkin’s aim was to make “music for the ears of groovy psychedelic funky dreamy music lovers,” according to her Bandcamp page, and she’s achieved it. Vinyl drum samples and rhythmic beats layer tracks with sensuality, and the sweeping freedom of “Born Last Night” is the kind of track to which you’ll wake up singing.
Maybe it’s the times in which we’re living, but positive affirmations—whether via Instagram or in music—seem to be necessary to maintaining sanity. That’s something the lovely Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mayyadda acknowledges, from her opening tracks “Holding Space” and “Human” to her closing track “Who?” The self-taught pianist and guitarist straddles soul and rootsy folk, gracefully weaving the genres into a sound that’s uniquely hers. And her emotional depth is stirring: “Our Heartbeat” is a deeply romantic song about finally being ready for love, while “Dying Day,” a mournful interlude, flows beautifully into the bluesy “Sick and Tired,” where her emotive voice hits distraught highs and anguished lows. Mayyadda is an adept storyteller whose music resonates long after the first listen.
Bree and the Reeds
The Cul-de-sac EP
Bree Reed has a bold voice with lyrics to match: “Bad enough I have to fight against the wage gap,” she asserts on “Broke.” “And I’m black / Under attack… just cut me my check.” She exemplifies a rousing full-throttle approach to her life throughout the EP, especially on “Magnetic,” a clever love song to herself that draws from the words of various admirers. So, for those needing their own internal pick-me-up, this might just be the song and EP to get you going.
Elmount and Maddiedoesntexist
Free at Dawn
Producer Elmount’s sparse EP, Free at Dawn, is a meditation on surviving heartbreak through the darkest hours. The Copenhagen, Denmark producer’s icy beats evoke the emotional unravelling one goes through in the throes of heartbreak. The echoed vocals create a sonic atmosphere that feels just as cold and alone as those sleepless nights where your wretched mind wrestles thoughts of romantic anguish.
The eight-piece band sound like the quintessential college band whose talent actually moves them beyond college pub nights and local house parties. Comprised of an eclectic group out of Portland, Oregon, the pleasure these friends have jamming together is evident on their self-titled debut. Moving between vocalists Vaughn Kimmons, Shawn Dungee, and MC Santigie Fofana Dura, among other band members and guest vocalists, Tribe Mars draw from soul, R&B, and hip-hop with that DIY Portland groove that makes their sound a bit off center (in a great way). In spite of needing more of the hypnotic female vocalist in “Sun Raisin” throughout the album, Tribe Mars provide release.
How Did I Miss This? June Omissions
Nu Dust is the dynamic pairing of spoken word poet/vocalist AhSa-Ti Nu and guitarist/producer Dust Collector. The self-titled EP marks the beginning of a collaboration that will soon include a full-length album. Dust Collector’s production creates a futuristic soul/retro groove space for AhSa-Ti Nu to shine. AhSa-Ti Nu’s powerful lyrics are hard-hitting and dishearteningly relevant, touching on topics like police brutality, racism, political corruption, and homelessness. Most disquieting is the way she marries her profound voice—politically, socially, and vocally, with tinges of weary wit—like on “Black Sun”: “Untold stories where there’s no white man to come in and save the day and yet the day was still saved.” From the sorrowful throwback groove of “No More Rising” to the brutal “Tent City,” it’s difficult not to question if the “American dream” is dead. Or was it always just meant for a few?
When the Sun Dips 90 Degrees
Luxurious and melodic best describe Nottingham, U.K.’s Yazmin Lacey’s release, When the Sun Dips 90 Degrees. The glamorous June soul release is a gem that couldn’t go unacknowledged. “No money in my pockets / I got the love,” she sings on opener “90 Degrees,” backed by a sparkly Afro-soul band that sound straight out of the spirited ‘70s. On the jazzy/neo-soul of “Something My Heart Trusts” and “Body Needs Healing,” her lackadaisical vocals are exquisite. Get ready for a new favorite.
-Chaka V. Grier