Biff-Boff-Boing! Rubinoos
Pynotic

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Extra cute kids’ music that will put you and your child in a good mood, the Rubinoos add their voices to their array of instruments to produce whimsical sing-alongs. They have original and covers on this album, including “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” “Witch Doctor,” “Earth Number One” and “Boris the Spider.”

If you don’t have a young one in your family, you’re probably not going to play Biff-Boff-Boing! But if you do, it will be in heavy rotation. It’s danceable, of course, and features a special appearance by Chumley the Dog. This is the first recording the five Rubinoos put together specifically for kids. However, they have been acting like kids and playing like kids for years.

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Never Too Loud Danko Jones
Bad Taste / Caroline

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

People love ’em in Sweden, and, in fact, all over Europe. Hailing from Toronto, Canada, Danko Jones and his band prove themselves to be up with the dankest garage rockers on Never Too Loud. Their classically cheesy, semi-melodic hard-rock sound is pleasantly familiar. Their songwriting isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s catchy and satisfying.

They clearly like the ladies and want to maintain a badass street-style. Their lyrics tell stories of the band members’ lives. While their sense of humor isn’t obvious in their words, its lurking in the background of the album, as if Danko Jones and company know that this kind of music is a little goofy but that this makes them love it all the more. 

Mighty, Mighty!

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Pink Elephant N’dambi
CocoRed / BluKey / Stax / Concord

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

N’dambi is a storyteller, using the quality of her voice just to elevate the intensity of her poignant lyrics. If you are looking for chill, funky nu-soul with a message (like they had in the old days), N’dambi is the one. She is political and strong, she sings of love and of tough times. With honesty, she is able to paint pictures of the people we know, revealing their humanity. You may even recognize yourself in her tales.

N’dambi’s vocal talents and lyric-writing lives up to that of the great soul artists, and makes up for the fact that today’s soul backup music is less than groundbreaking, with its basic hip-hop patterning and lack of oddball rhythms. Still, the album is perfect for the relaxed groover. Light up some incense and enjoy.

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Crucial Times Sizzla Kalonji
Greensleeves / VP Reggae / Planet Reggae

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Reggae’s long history of politicking is demonstrated in Crucial Times. Just about every song contains philosophy and political commentary, bringing to light the important struggles of Jamaican youth as well as the challenges of poverty all over the world.

Crucial Times includes eight of Sizzla’s first tracks. Mainly, positive vibrations sweep through every track, and prime quality reggae beats accompany the words. Unfortunately, Sizzla’s music will always be tainted by consciousness of his homophobic attitude, which in 2004 was accused of inciting violence against LGBTQ people. However, if you are careful to leave his homophobic songs by the wayside, you’ll still be able to enjoy the cuts on Crucial Times, as they swing from danceable to rootsy.

Political Album of the Week

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Keepin’ On Albert Castiglia
Blues Leaf / Loose Leaf

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Albert Castiglia brings us some laid-back electric blues running the usual gamut of blues themes, from love to tough-times. He’s modern, singing about Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae, yet his sound brings on that classic, melancholy, wailing blues tremor.

Before he made this album, Castiglia had toured with Junior and Sandra Hall, and opened for ZZ Top and Elvin Bishop. He’s been around the block, and with this recent solo album, he shows off his guitar adulations with flair and confidence. His guitar phrases fit in snugly with the warm bass and longing voice, and the overall, the album has a complete, modern blues sound that will fit right in next to the great Chicago blues artists of our time.

Let the Good Times Roll

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Great Escape The Rifles
Nettwerk / Sixsevennine

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Handsome working-class Londoners The Rifles are back with a sassy, rhythmic, meaning-charged release about escaping from the doldrums of the mundane. In front of their tinny, indie-rock guitars, speak-singing gives ways to full choral sounds and rueful chanting here and there in the album.

The lyrics are clever and cover a diverse range of topics, including a defense of political violence, how to turn away from the TV and make something of your life, and what love is like in a broken world. Not all of their songs are simple to decipher: the lyrics are clever and complex, and more fun than their topics imply. The Rifles are not just another rock boy band. They strive to influence you.

New Album of the Week

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Slice Five for Fighting
Aware / Columbia / Sony

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

As ballad-oriented as Don McLean or Elton John, but wholly patriotic and middle-American, Five for Fighting (a.k.a. John Ondrasik) brings us 11 piano-backed tracks on Slice. The music and lyrics are meant to be presented in a bare and honest way, and it is. However, that doesn’t make it the most interesting music out there right now.

Still, there are likely dozens of nice young ladies across the country learning Ondrasik’s songs on piano. These young ladies’ parents probably also buy his album. He recently played at a ceremony honoring Steven Schwartz, the composer for Godspell and Wicked, and perhaps he would thrive if he wrote songs for musicals as well, since his melodies include long phrases and plenty of room for additional vocals, and his lyrics lean toward an emotional storytelling style.

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Tango Variations: 12 Pieces That Dance Between the Traditional & the Modern Various Artists
Rhino / Warner Bros.

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Tango: If you thought the dancing was sexy, you should hear the music. Inspiring and expressive, this collection of modern tango music, as inspired by the traditional tango sound, somehow takes on a voice even though the songs are mostly instrumental. The accordion, piano and violin show us touches of the Eastern European influence on tango. A fantastic South American style of rhythm sweeps through the album.

Yo-Yo Ma, Tango Conspiracy and Tanghetto are only three of the twelve well-respected artists on the recording. Between them, we get everything from the fully acoustic to electro-sampled mixes. Spicy drum machine gives way to simple guitar, and all your expectations shatter. The only way this album could gather dust would be if you kicked it up while dancing your brains out.

Single of the Week: "Last Tango in Paris"

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The Sons of the Pioneers Sing the Stephen Foster Songbook The Sons of the Pioneers Feat. Roy Rogers
Soundies / Varése Sarabande / Fontana

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

The songs of Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864) certainly do represent the original in Americana. You can hear it in the stringed instruments the band uses. You can hear it in the songs’ melodies, and in the voices of the backup singers. You can hear it in the lyrics: beside talking about growing tobacco, going to the Camptown races, and courting Southern belles Susanna and Dolly Day, there are some uncomfortable references to African American people. But hey, it’s important to remember your roots, the tough parts as well as the tender.

Most of the songs on the album are sunken into our American collective unconscious, and it’s good to be able to hear the early versions of these songs in all their glory. Further, you really can learn about what life was like in the United States’ first century from the stories told in these songs. On CD for the first time, these recordings make a fascinating listen, even if you decide not to cover these original versions around the campfire.

Single of the Week: "Hard Times Come Again No More"

Editor’s Note: The Sons of the Pioneers are the foremost vocal and instrumental group in Western music and the definitive band specializing in cowboy songs, setting the standard for every group that has come after them. 

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The Trouble With Flying Orba Squara
Res FREq / Universal

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

It’s good to be a New York City hipster these days, with a toy xylophone in your pocket and the attention of Universal Records, NPR and the Sundance Film Festival. Orba Squara write songs that are comfortable, that promise to agree with your humors and that are sung with his unique falsetto voice. The lyrics are thoughtful and sweet, and his instrument range includes all the best of odd acoustic instrumentation: ukulele, xylophone, toy piano and, of course, guitar.

The music is quality, and it feels good to snuggle into it, but what is the underlying theme that Obra Squara is getting at? In his own words, Squara realized that “you couldn’t really do anything with electronic music to surprise anyone anymore.” So he went back to the old vibration-inducing stings, wood and metal. The result is a bright yet shy sound, a baring of the soul of the one person behind the album. This is quality cuteness.

So Nice Gotta Do It Up Twice! (as spoken by the original NYC D.J., Jocko, 1955)

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100 Miles From Memphis Sheryl Crow
A&M / UMG

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Sheryl Crow has a touch for songwriting, and she shows it off on this album. 100 Miles From Memphis lives up to its name, as Crow, who grew up just about 100 miles from Memphis, explores gospel and R&B. She does a great job with the sound, including brass instrumentation and rich backup soul vocals.

However, it’s hard not to feel like Crow is exploiting black music as she remakes herself as a singer of reggae, R&B, gospel and blues. The country fusion that she meshes with these styles is perhaps able to pull her out of this trap. But 100 Miles immediately evokes the awkward situation Paul Simon likely found himself in after releasing Graceland. Despite all this, there are some real gems on this album, the lyrics are good and, as it is likely that Crow was as respectful as possible in her appropriation, it’s still an album worth getting.

Single of the Week: "Eye to Eye"

Editor's Note: That she is an incredible songwriter, an excellent rock 'n' roll singer and a master of production craft makes Sheryl Crow the equal of any glorious rock 'n' roller. She's classy and full of character, and when she sticks to her irresistible pop style, she captures the hurt and world-weariness of every listener.

If You Love Music, You'll Love This!

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Seven Moons Live Jack Bruce & Robin Trowler
Ruf

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Live albums usually bare the souls of the performing musicians, and this rule holds for the release of a 2009 recording of Jack Bruce and Robin Trowler together. These blues musicians both have powerful blues histories, with Jack Bruce’s experience in Cream obviously shining brightly. You’ll recognize his voice from Cream, as well as his bass playing and song-writing. It’s undoubtedly fun to hear the duo covering famous Cream songs, where Trowler holds up his end of the deal on guitar.

Forming sheer classic-rock blues, the voices and sounds on Seven Moons Live come from an obviously older Bruce and Trowler, but this only makes us adore them all the more. They are doing what they love, grooving out on deliciously wide musical scale possibilities. Their focus and passion is contagious.

Late But Great

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The Secret Song DJ Spooky
Thirsty Ear

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

DJ Spooky is the Mary Poppins of DJs. He is practically perfect in every way. Politically radical, superfluously talented and always bringing original beat production, chops and remixes, his flavors will leave you more pleased than rum punch. Your pulse will raise even with the slowest of beats simply because of his choice of samples. Your mind will spin from the words of his guest collaborators. DJ Spooky might even turn your mom into a revolutionary.

The Secret Song is more listenable than his spacey albums. It also has a more straightforward rhythm and melody than his jazz work. In short, it is some of his absolute best. Featuring The Coup, Rob Swift, The Golden Hornet Project, The Jungle Brothers, Thurston Moore and others, you simply must hear this one for yourself. Get ready to dance on the rooftops and stick those chimney brooms to the man.

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Consciousness Smile Empty Soul
FOF / MRAfia / Caroline / EMI

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

It’s hard for those of us who grew up in the 1990s to understand how hard rock like this can still be appreciated by the angry youths of today. After all, why aren’t they listening to the rockers of the 1990s who invented this metal-grunge sound back when it was still fresh? But the youth are pissed, and they want to hear from people who are still young and hip and on tour.

That said, for what it is (pop-metal), Smile Empty Soul does well for themselves on Consciousness. Sean Danielsen’s voice is pleasant to listen to, the music is heavy enough to scream along to, and the topics covered range in scope from Christianity to what it’s like to be an outcast to painting character portraits. If you are stuck in stupid suburbia and pissed about it, this one’s for you, kid.
 

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Body Talk Pt. 1 Robyn
Cherrytree / Interscope / UMG

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

The Swedish Robyn was known for her club hits in the late 1990s. She put out that kind of music that would make you want to dance, the kind that would get stuck in your head, the kind that you wouldn’t be caught dead with in your CD player. Today, Robyn is putting out these same kinds of jams, though she has noticeably matured.

Body Talk Pt. 1, the first EP in a three-part series, contains a mix of radio and club hits as well as more thoughtful, sparse electro-poetics. It’s not completely believable when the Swede goes dancehall, but she manages to keep things interesting. With catchy hooks, modern-sounding keyboards, sing-songy lines and pseudo-rap, Body Talk Pt. 1 is up-to-date and relevant. Keep an eye out for parts two and three as well.

Editor's Note: Robyn's songwriting skills surfaced at age 11, when she wrote "In My Heart" about her parents' divorce. She has created a collection of spunky, relentlessly addictive pop songs, covering a range of emotions, from love to questionable relationships. Her deftly-written lyrics put her above the rest. 

Artist to Watch

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F. – Á Léo Roberto Cipelli, Attilio Zanchi, Phillippe Garcia, Paolo Fresu and Gianmaria Testa
Justin Time

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

F. – Á Léo honors the passed composer, poet and musician Léo Ferré. With words spoken softly in Italian and gentle but sophisticated piano, bass, drums and trumpet, the album is meant to capture his spirit on a well-planned album. The contributing musicians are at the top of their game and express themselves as if the music itself were a the ink for writing a biography of the beloved artist.

The music speeds up and relaxes as if taking long, slow breaths, moving always with clear purpose. For someone who knows a bit about the history of jazz, the album awakens you to the the political background of Ferré work, while for someone who is new to the picture, it’s an enlightening snapshop of Italian jazz. It would be fun to get an English translation of the lyrics on the album, but without it, the bounty of Italian language makes for a romantic feel throughout F.

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Reckless The SteelDrivers
Rounder

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

This is energized bluegrass, complete with male and female vocals and all the instrumental fixin’s. The SteelDrivers’ second album contains 12 original tracks that express relevant sentiments in an old-time style, with attention to rhythm and no shortage of talent.

The sentiment of the album is Life is crazy sometimes, we work hard, so we might as well party hard too! The chemistry between the band mates is apparent in not just their coordination but also in their the rise and fall of their voices and the swell of the instruments. If you like genuine Nashville bluegrass with a touch of country, check out the SteelDrivers.

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Middle Men: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Various Artists
Oxymoron / Mallick / Paramount Vintage / ABKCO

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Middle Men is a movie that takes place in 1995, and so including some nostalgic music on its soundtrack makes sense. We all love Outkast, Dr. Dre, Moby, Tears for Fears and the Rolling Stones. However, it would have been nice to hear from a few obscure artists, or at least to hear a couple of songs that aren’t totally and irresuscitatably played out.

We have all boogied down to “The Way You Move,” “California Love,” “Body Rock,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” And if you don’t have these songs yet, you can get them all in one place on Middle Men. But don’t expect anything you haven’t already heard… except for the two tracks by Brian Tyler, composer of the score for Middle Men, and some quality international sounds from OMC, Tito Puente and Louis Prima.

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Laws of Illusion Sarah McLachlan
Nettwerk / Arista / Sony

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Open, with spare, sampled drum loops and a complete overview of Sarah McLachlan’s vocal talents, Laws of Illusion is a another emotive McLachlan release. It twinkles uncontrollably with McLachlan airs.

Some of the cuts have an upbeat, doo-wop influence, while other focus on that signature broken-tone vocalization that McLachlan is famous for. Still others are slower than slow, piano-filled ballads. Electric guitar fizzes here and there, and it’s hard to tell the difference between a synthesizer and the backup vocals. McLachlan’s lyric writing is sincere. It’s not mysterious or incredibly specific, rather, it insinuates itself as an expression of your personal love issues, no matter who you are. Laws of Illusion was obviously taken straight from McLachlan’s heart, but as usual with her music, it will shape itself to your heart too in no time.

Single of the Week: "Loving You I Easy"

Editor’s Note: Sarah McLachlan is one of the most influential artists in the world—the successful founder of the all-woman Lillith Fair tour, which has ushered in a parade of female singer/songwriters into the upper regions of the charts. She has always provided sharp hooks and distinctive melodies, which allow McLachlan’s quavering soprano the opportunity to do more than just flutter about like a butterfly, but take you into the world of angels.

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Various Artists This Is the Blues: Volumes 3 & 4, 2 CDs
Eagle Rock

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

This blues compilation is a case of modern greats redoing the songs of classic greats. After all, that’s what the blues are made of: songs done and done again, so that they are always fresh and are able to stretch to an era’s own character. The older the cover song, the longer it has stood the test of time. Weak songs are picked out, and only the best remain. The songs take on a life of their own, as the musicians become simply vehicles for delivering them, adding to them colorful strains from the musicians’ own times and regional cultures.

This Is the Blues features a variety styles, from that gritty Chicago electric style to piano-pounders to carefully measured declarations of guilt. Some are harmonica-soaked and other sound straight from the dizzy 1970s. With musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, some who favor solos and others who just want to blast us with mood, This Is the Blues is a great introductory and definitive foray into traditional blues songs played in a modern style.

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Scream Ozzy Osbourne
Epic / Sony

Author:
Sophia Strosberg

Ozzy’s willful assertion of his unique selfhood continues on his recent release, Scream. At times the cuts are downright pretty, with plenty of ringing acoustic guitar and ethereal effects. But for the most part, hard rock prevails. Notably, Gus G. replaces the usual Zakk Wylde on this one, bringing new energy to every song. Warping guitars attend to the rhythm of the drums while Ozzy’s voice rings out above the riffs.

 

The vocals seem to be placed under filters for much of the album, though the dreaded AutoTune is either absent or very subtle. Scream is a nice, old-fashioned metal album, from its minor keys to its open conversation, addressed to Jesus, regarding Osbourne’s doubts about Christianity. Bottom line: This a well-produced, surprisingly good addition to Ozzy’s list of releases. He stays true to his freak identity, even as he moves away from wing-nut moves like having his own reality TV show.

Single of the Week: "Fearless"

Editor's Note: Ozzy is the emissary of the devil. Or so the religious right would have you believe. I believe he was the leader of Black Sabbath, a druggie, a drinker. Ozzy is the true god of heavy metal. It's not Mephistopheles that Ozzy worships, but his fans.

Best Album of the Week

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