If a ukulele player grimacing like a rock star while he squeezes a solo out of his instrument sounds incongruous, you haven’t seen Jake Shimabukuro in action.
In the past, Shimabukuro has used an amplifier and effects pedals to get different tones out of his ukulele, but recently he’s returned to the delicate unamplified tone of his instrument.
On “My Life” (Hitchhike), he astounds with a technique that drops jazz, blues, flamenco, classical and rock flourishes into his traditionally rooted playing. The recording shows off Shimabukuro’s contemplative side, with extended improvisations that display the ukulele’s surprising range. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has a long classical intro before moving into the tune’s familiar melody, while The Beatles’ “In My Life” gets a jazzy, melancholic reading full of rippling arpeggios and subtle slide accents.
Shimabukuro plays Yoshi’s, Jack London Square in Oakland, at 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday. Call (510) 238-9200.
Jenny Owen Youngs looks like a sweet girl folk singer with her long dark hair and big acoustic guitar, but her astringent songs and assertive playing belie the image. Some critics have called her a female Nick Drake, a comparison that isn’t far off the mark.
“Batten the Hatches,” released earlier this year on Nettwerk, is marked by beautiful melodies that carry dark, arcane messages.
“Drinking Song” is a bright ode to self-destruction that sounds cheery, but its lyrics strip the romanticism away from the desire to drown the sorrows that keep bobbing to the surface. On “Bricks,” Youngs explores a dysfunctional family, with a tense arrangement marked by a brooding cello and jittery guitar. Implications of sexual abuse hover in the background, giving the track an unbearable tension.
Her forlorn visions may not be for everyone, but those who walk on the shadowy side of the street may find solace in her somber musings.
Youngs plays the Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., San Francisco, with local songwriter Sean Hayes at 8 p.m. Nov. 15. Call (415) 885-0750.
Memphis-based bass player and songwriter Amy LaVere was recently nominated as best emerging artist by the Americana Music Association. LaVere played Wanda Jackson in “Walk the Line,” but her gypsy-jazz-meets-honky-tonk music is about as far from rockabilly as you can get.
“Anchors & Anvils” (Archer) lets LaVere apply her sultry, late night vocals to a collection that blends originals with well-chosen covers as her backing band moves from blues to country to jazz without missing a beat.
LaVere’s sly vocal is full of dark humor on “Overcome,” a despondent waltz that describes a messy house in the midst of a rainstorm that’s emotional as well as actual. “Pointless Drinking” blends Memphis soul and country to deliver a heartbroken lament spiked by a bit of mordant humor.
LaVere plays the Great American Music Hall at 8 p.m. Nov. 17. Call (415) 885-0750.