With a title like “The Capitalist Blues,” it’s no surprise that Leyla McCalla’s third album is filled with protest songs. But it’s not your standard protest music. Led by the title track, which she began writing several years ago, the songs are angry, yes, but also sensual, reflective, and even playful.
Like its predecessors (2016’s Haitian proverb-inspired “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey” and 2013’s “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” made after she left the Carolina Chocolate Drops), “Capitalist Blues” draws on McCalla’s family ancestry, Haitian folk, American gospel and Creole waltzes, and is sung partly in Haitian Creole. But this time the classically trained cellist left her cello at home, and relied on producer Jimmy Horn, veteran New Orleans musicians and Haitian ensemble Lakou Mizik to help create a more expansive musical framework.
A zesty parade of accordion, lap steel, Haitian tanbou drum, organ, percussion, triangle and tuba rally around McCalla’s electric guitar and tenor banjo. It’s her first album with a full band, and the resultant burst of energy magnifies the impact of tracks like rumbling rocker “Aleppo” and the frenetic sing-along “Settle Down” (“They say settle down and try to keep you in place/ They say settle down to keep you from feeling strong”). The breezy calypso rhythm of Neville Marcano’s “Money is King” belies its indignant message:
“If a man has money today
People don’t care …
He can commit murder and get off free
Rise to the seat of the presidency
But if you are poor people tell you shoo
A dog is better than you”
McCalla, whose parents actively championed human rights while raising her in small town New Jersey, has consistently addressed social justice issues in her songs. Now married and raising three children in New Orleans, her love songs — the corkscrewed “Me and My Baby,” zydeco romp “Oh My Love” — are no less celebratory for acknowledging intimacy’s disappointments. When she sings, “Our moments of perfection are so fleeting/ But when we get things right, that’s what keeps my heart beating,” in sweet, even tones, the line soars precisely because the joy is so hard earned. Likewise, “Heavy as Lead” wraps fears of lead poisoning in a soul-swaying groove and gospel-like harmonies that soothe without denying the vulnerability in “trying to grab hold of what we can’t control” while living “on the edge” in a tainted house. “Don’t tell me everything’s gonna be all right,” she warns.
Next month will see the release of “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” a collaborative project between McCalla, Rhiannon Giddens, Birds of Chicago frontwoman Alli Russell and singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah. That means a busy month for McCalla, who’s just returned from a European tour and plays Zebulon Café on Wednesday. With Sunny War also performing, it’s likely to be a night of music both socially conscious and soulful. n\
Leyla McCalla and Sunny War perform at Zebulon Café, 2478 Fletcher Drive, Silver Lake, at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6; $10 advance/$12 day of show. Info: (323) 663-6927. Leylamccalla.com, Zebulon.la