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Empathetic albums

Left to right: Kidjo, Baez, Owen, and McKay (Photo illustration: Krieg Barrie (Kidjo: Dave Hansen/The Daily News via AP; Baez: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP; Owen: Mike Pont/Getty Images; McKay: Seth Wenig/AP))

Empathetic albums

Recent releases bring subdued interpretations of familiar songs

One of the few traditional gender-based assumptions that it’s safe to reiterate in public these days is that women have, or at any rate demonstrate, a greater capacity for empathy than men do.

But even if practically every study on the topic didn’t suggest as much, prolonged exposure to the latest albums by Joan Baez, Angélique Kidjo, Nellie McKay, and Judith Owen would.

Of the albums’ 41 total songs, none were written by the performers themselves, making the songs empathetic by definition. And 33 were written by men, raising the empathy bar, at least theoretically, for any woman who would inhabit them convincingly.

But inhabit them convincingly the women do. And they don’t make a big deal about it, settling comfortably for the most part into subdued, predominantly acoustic interpretations.

The exception is Kidjo’s Remain in Light (Kravenworks), which is both exuberant and electric. But as it’s a track-by-track re-creation of Talking Heads’ polyrhythmic, West African–inspired masterpiece of the same name, exuberance and electricity are in order.

Kidjo’s Remain in Light stays close to Talking Heads’ arrangements. Anyone familiar with the originals will easily identify the songs. But Kidjo departs from the blueprint too, altering melodies and, of course, singing and enunciating like her West African self instead of like the performance-artist-turned-rock-star that David Byrne was 38 years ago.

She also oversees instrumentation that subtly shifts the music’s balance of afrobeat and the avant-garde in favor of the former, making her version of Remain in Light an affectionate act of cultural re-appropriation.

There’s nothing subtle, on the other hand, about Owen’s balance-shifting RedisCOVERed (Twanky). Whether decelerating, and thus improving, songs that zipped past too quickly as chart toppers (Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”), or decelerating, and thus neutering, something that was just fine to begin with (Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”), she confounds expectations.

In between, there are spot-on renditions of Joni Mitchell “deep cuts,” neither-here-nor-there Soundgarden, Beatles, and Donna Summer covers, and—speaking of confounding—a one-woman take of the Grease duet “Summer Nights.”

Nellie McKay’s Sister Orchid (Palmetto) could also be said to confound expectations—that is, if her previous output had made an album’s worth of Tin Pan Alley–era standards unthinkable. But coming from someone who sandwiched an album of her own compositions between tribute albums to Doris Day and ’60s rock, Hoagy Carmichael seems almost like a logical next step.

McKay takes an occasionally mischievous but mostly deadpan approach to the piano and the mic, giving the program a quietly surreal, wee-small-hours-of-the-morning vibe. On one level, she obviously loves the material and the material just as obviously loves her back. On another, though, the two are still sizing each other up. The resulting tension helps Sister Orchid resist the pull of the nostalgia in which it traffics.

Joan Baez has populated her new album, Whistle Down the Wind (Proper), with elegies and in so doing made what sounds a lot like a final statement. It may be: Her once crystalline voice now sounds weary, and she’s calling her 2018 concerts the Fare Thee Well Tour.

But, for someone who has never met a “progressive” cause that she didn’t love, Baez goes easy on the agitprop. Her anti-Trump song “Nasty Man” is absent, and her pro-Obama song (Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace”) is pretty mild.

You’d almost get the impression that her increasing proximity to the “great equalizer” could have her empathizing with “deplorables.”