Music » Rhythm & Views

ZZ Ward: Til the Casket Drops (Hollywood)

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Like an Adele, Aretha or Amy who had gravitated to rap MCs, this talented singer from rural Oregon (by way of Los Angeles) wails convincingly at the crossroads of vintage R&B and blues, with more than a dash of hip-hop for contemporary street cred. Although she roughens it up here and there, Ward still has a lovely voice, strident and soulful.

The title track on Ward's full-length debut might at first seem contrived, but it sets the tone for the rest of the album: polished arrangements coexisting with a down 'n' dirty edge, all framing her robust vocals. Many of Ward's tunes include lyrical symbolism borrowed from crime and violence, but it's not a distraction. The explosive "Put the Gun Down," for instance, works great as a metaphor or a realistic document of a dangerous situation.

On the best track, "Cryin' Wolf," Ward mixes acoustic blues with dark synths and indulges in a rhythmic style of chanting that seems like a second cousin to rap; the effect is underscored by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar's stiletto-sharp verse. Freddie Gibbs lends his vaguely menacing flow to the spooky "Criminal."

Most of this material is undeniably magnetic, such as the old-school soul of "Charlie Ain't Home," with its modern sheen and bluesy guitar grit. Then, refreshingly, the bouncy groove of "Blue Eyes Blind" recalls a bit of the irresistible retro-dance mood of OutKast's now-classic "Hey Ya."

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