You can miss the Hawaiian specifics and still get the gist of 20-year-old Raiatea Helm’s new traditionalist groove on Sweet & Lovely: the tasteful instrumentation highlighting ukulele and steel guitar, the elders cameos, the Hawaiian-language lyrics projected with contemporary punch. Some might not cotton to the way falsetto is used—the practice is to change register within the line, as in yodeling. But you’ve got to love the cheerful confidence, smooth highs, and gorgeous lows with which she sells herself.
Hawaii has been a conquered colony and cornball fantasy for more than a century, and Raiatea’s folk jazz absorbs much of that history. Sweet & Lovely works as tribute, update, and reclamation, sucking in old mele songs and 1920s pop. It even ends with a great “At Last,” more Dinah Washington than Etta James. Maybe she’s already mined out the past and this second record will remain her best, but it sounds more like a career-establishing formula. Although nominated, Raiatea went back to Molokai without a Grammy, losing to a nice old-fashioned slack-key guitar compilation. I’ll bet, and hope, that she’ll be back with lots more to tell us about the intertwined musical history of the mainland and her home.