Simulacrum barely merits a raised eyebrow anymore. People have been copying for so long that the act has moved beyond aesthetic novelty — first, to encoded-with-meaning significance and, finally, into the realm of the hackneyed and dull. Like instruments, eras have become neutral, just tools to be used.
Maybe that’s the platonic ideal of repurposing, though: to so thoroughly strip the borrowing of meaning that it no longer registers as borrowing but rather a seamless evocation of the original moment or thing, before history painted it one way or the other.
Take Ice Choir, the new project of Kurt Feldman, drummer of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, updaters of ’90s indie rock. There is no wink to this band — mostly Mr. Feldman and his instruments — which exists at the overlapping point of the New Romanticism of early-to-mid-’80s pop-rock and, at times, the quiet-storm RB around the same era.
The stirringly beautiful “Afar” is its first full-length album (following an EP of demos), and it evokes Tears for Fears and Scritti Politti, even Spandau Ballet. Mr. Feldman delivers intensely smooth, heavily processed vocals, rounded at the edges, as if squeezed from a tube. His voice is slightly aspirated — it sounds as if he’s forever sighing — and the way the conclusions of some of his lines drop in register evoke a resigned melancholy that was one of the key sonic signatures of the time he’s recalling.
Even his poetic, gnomic lyrics feel like a nod to the pageantry of the day. On “Teletrips” he sings, “Glorious lunacy, kaleidoscopic cries/Misery, sympathy/Tarry or stand aside.” Slightly more linear is “A Vision of Hell, 1996”:
I am the criminal in your vision of hell
Your vision of hell
The witch behind the spell and
The guilt is terrible
To say Mr. Feldman is demonstrating fealty to his chosen era feels like an understatement: he is thoroughly inside it, assimilated into the borg. His guitars and synthesizers throb and bounce in the way familiar from the Brat Pack era soundtracks and early Depeche Mode, like a continuation of a project left unfinished by others. Somewhat miraculously Mr. Feldman has blasted past the sting of the new and found his way back to the original feeling, untainted. JON CARAMANICA
The coyly contradictory title of Elle Varner’s debut album, “Perfectly Imperfect,” echoes the message of its closer, “So Fly,” which she first released on a promotional mixtape early this year. The track, a bouncy pop-reggae tune, begins with a dispirited look in the mirror, pauses to consider surgical alterations and then neatly pivots toward assuredness, delivering a body-image testimonial suitable for daytime talk shows and teen magazines. More crucially for an RB artist at this stage in her career it establishes a persona and a set of coordinates, roughly at the point of intersection between self-effacement and self-empowerment.
Ms. Varner, 23, has a lean and limber voice, which she often distresses for emphasis in the style of a classic soul singer. She has immediate pedigree as a singer-songwriter — her parents, Mikelyn Roderick and Jimmy Varner, have had careers in the field — and an affinity for the slinky, earnest RB of the 1990s, which makes her seem both instantly familiar and, given the current landscape, something of an outlier.
There are no moments on this album in which she sounds indecorous, imperious or inhuman. When she evokes a force of nature, it’s not an overwhelming force: in a slow-funk ballad called “Leaf” she promises to be “Lighter than a leaf in your pocket/I’ll be the air.”
So humility suits Ms. Varner, even though she’s clearly some kind of go-getter. She had a hand in writing every song on the album, which she produced with Oak and Pop, a working duo. “Only Wanna Give It To You,” the album’s lead single, breezily compares a prospective lover to a covetable pair of shoes. “Welcome Home,” one of three songs Ms. Varner wrote with her father, upholds a decidedly upper-middle-class vision of domestic bliss, down to the two-car garage.
Her most sensual turn comes on “Sound Proof Room,” which suggests a playfully urgent twist on Jackson 5 nostalgia. “What have you done to me?” she asks at one point. “But more importantly: what am I going to do to you?”
It’s a flash of desire far more convincing than the hangover she claims on “Oh What a Night,” which feels like a concession to contemporary tastes. (She does rap credibly on that track, though her best aside is mumbled during the fade-out: “I really gotta go and see my pastor.”)
Elsewhere, on yearning slow jams like “I Don’t Care” and “Refill,” she winsomely confides to a range of insecurities. And if the title of “Not Tonight” calls to mind her rebuff of a stranger’s advances, consider the dramatic potential of the inverse:
Maybe, maybe in another life
I could be the girl who walks up to the guy
And tells him, tells him how she feels inside.
But, not tonight. No, not tonight.
Marcus Miller just can’t help it. His thumb-slapping electric bass technique is the first and last thing that confronts a listener on “Renaissance,” framing the album as an object lesson in the temptations of virtuosity. First comes the eight-bar funk vamp at the core of a tune called “Detroit,” and then comes its melody, embellished by Mr. Miller with double-stop chords. It’s a tight opener but also the sort of thing you’d hear at a Guitar Center clinic. And it casts a shadow of doubt on Mr. Miller’s capacity for self-restraint. Even a peacock keeps the plumage folded up most of the time.
Some good news, then: “Renaissance” isn’t all empty flash, despite that early impression. By and large the album has substance to go along with its style, befitting an artist who has always been deeper and more thoughtful than his profile suggests. And while Mr. Miller never lays off the fretboard exhibitionism, he does find better context for it: in a solo on the War classic “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” say, or on snappy jazz-funk originals like “Mr. Clean” and “Jekyll Hyde.”
The album also showcases what has become a smart working band, with the alto saxophonist Alex Han, the drummer Louis Cato, the trumpeter Maurice Brown, the guitarist Adam Agati and the keyboardist Kris Bowers. There’s a tangible sense of Mr. Miller developing a sound with this group and allowing just enough leeway for his younger sidemen to get their personalities across.
There’ll be more room for the band to stretch during its fall tour, which stops at B. B. King Blues Club in Times Square on Sept. 22. But it’s all for the best that Mr. Miller’s instincts in the studio run toward concision. And that he’s judicious with the guest list. He brings in Dr. John on the Janelle Monae tune “Tightrope,” and two other distinctive vocalists on “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song),” by Ivan Lins: the multitasking salsa star Rubén Blades, who chants a utopian refrain, and the jazz singer Gretchen Parlato, who sighs in a wordless drift. It works.
Still, there are tantalizing glimpses of an album more satisfying and audacious than this one. A sinuous tune called “Redemption,” with a melodic line full of surprising intervals, suggests a link to the legacy of Weather Report. And “Gorée (Go-ray)” is a touching ballad that features Mr. Miller on bass clarinet, sounding assured but mortal. More emblematic, though, is the album’s closer, an arrangement of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” that he plays alone, balancing melody, bass line and chords: beauty and bedazzlement, unabashed, all at once. NATE CHINEN