Sam Phillips
World on Sticks
(Littlebox Recordings, *** stars)

The world is a fragile place environmentally, socially and psychologically on World On Sticks, Sam Phillips's eleventh album. "How did we find ourselves living on top of the things that we don't want any more," Phillips sings on "American Landfill Kings." Many songs hope for resilience: "I finally taught the grief to walk behind me / today the sky was everything," she sings in the lovely "Candles and Stars."

In the time since 2013's Push Any Button, Phillips has been busy scoring TV projects for Amy Sherman-Palladino (The Gilmore Girls revival and Emmy-dominating The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and some of the songs on World On Sticks have a cinematic quality, especially when the Section Quartet strings dominate. Others, such as the title track and "I Want To Be You," are clattery and percussive in ways Tom Waits would love (drummer Jay Bellerose is often prominent). Throughout, the songs are compact in length but spacious, with each instrument (mostly drums, bass, and electric guitars or strings) in sharp relief. They're tied together by Phillips's intricate melodies, world-weary voice and skeptical worldview. — Steve Klinge

Macy Gray
(Artistry Music/Mack Avenue *** ½)

Back in the day of neo-soul's gentle, jazzy sway, Macy Gray — a raspy vocalist with a tactile grit that happily grated against the genre's smooth operations — made a hit with the stammering "I Try," and never looked back. She almost couldn't, as that sensuous tunes rep (and platinum sales) overwhelmed much of her strong catalog going forward. Yet, with her Billie Holliday-ish 2016 covers album, Stripped, and her salty, sample-heavy, hard R&B-based Ruby, Gray has outrun her pop past without eschewing it.

Still grimy after all these years,  Gray and her assembled crew are bluer than usual during large chunks of Ruby. While nu-blues axe man Gary Clark Jr. stops by the gospel-tinged "Buddha" to bring eyesight to the blind, the vocalist does the tear-in-the-beer routine proud on the woozily romantic and brassy "Over You" with a lyrical lament ("I haven't had a drink since my last one/No clouds in my sky, but I'm on one") that's ruminative but optimistic. Gray might lose a star for the gurgling pop of "Sugar Daddy" with schlocky up-tempo mistress, Meghan Trainor, but gains two back during the abrasive "White Man," with the R&B cuts bruised take on someone else's raw racism. And all the while, Gray has never sounded more hurt, more high or more unbound as she riffs, scats, wails, and quietly coos her heart out. — A.D. Amorosi