“The quiet kept me inspired,” boasts Ka on “Knighthood,” and the song proves it. Ka, from Brownsville, Brooklyn, is a rapper-producer who thrives in silence and stillness. On his excellent new album, The Night’s Gambit, as on his 2012 breakthrough Grief Pedigree, Ka raps in menacing sotta voce, in songs that unfurl over dark, spacious music. It’s a sound that suits the subject matter: hard-boiled, hardscrabble tales of poverty and small-scale drug trafficking, delivered by a survivor — a man who, just barely, lived to tell. “Knighthood” is prime Ka. The wordplay is tightly stacked up, and the beat is like the story: beautifully bleak.
Court Yard Hounds, “Amelita”
The 2010 debut album by Court Yard Hounds — a.k.a. sisters Marty Maguire and Emily Robison, a.k.a. the Dixie Chicks who aren’t lead singer Natalie Maines — was a pleasant but tentative record. It sounded like the work of musicians used to hanging back in the shadows, a little terrified of stepping into the spotlight’s glare. But on album No. 2, Amelita, Maguire and Robison have loosened up. The songs are stronger, but the real difference is the Hounds’ swagger, a confidence that shines in the tight harmony singing, in the jangling instrumentation, and especially, in the songs’ jaunty ’tude. The title track is a fine example: a half-mournful, half-bitchy portrait of a woman stuck in a midlife rut.
Pet Shop Boys, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”
Pop doesn’t get much more British than this song from Electric, the new album by the finest, wittiest synthpop duo ever to ply the discotheques of the Sceptred Isle. It’s a droll tale of a loser-in-love who seeks solace in the half-baked philosophy of his undergraduate years: “Now I’m digging through my student paper bags / Flicking through Karl Marx again / Searching for the soul of England / Drinking tea like Tony Benn / Love is just a bourgeois construct / So I’ve given up the bourgeoisie.” The music is typical Pet Shop Boys: a laconic Neil Tennant vocal floats atop gleaming keyboards and thumping Eurodisco beat. Bonus High Englishness: that big fanfare in the song’s refrain is a melody lifted from Henry Purcell’s 1671 opera King Arthur.
Sara Bareilles, “Brave”
Sara Bareilles, who you know from “Love Song,” is a piano-playing singer-songwriter with a natural flair for pop. If only that were enough to keep her happy. On her latest album, The Blessed Unrest, Bareilles spends a lot of time, and disgorges a lot of bad poetry, trying to prove she’s an artiste. The wise listener will ignore The Blessed Unrest’s sodden poetry — stuff like “Chasing the Sun,” a song with Deep Thoughts About Mortality, set in Queens cemetery — and concentrate on the flavorful bubblegum tunes. One place to start: the single “Brave,” co-written with Jack Antonoff of fun. Nice tune; fine singing; pep-talk lyrics, just this side of dippy. Sounds like art to me.