Just Gettin' Started Coldwater Canyon Band
Kountree Boyz / Deh Tyme

Author:
SAS

Please forgive the Coldwater Canyon Band for the conservative lyrics it uses now and then on Just Gettin' Started, because this amounts to nothing less than the most entertaining country music album you've heard in a long time. Sure, it starts out as you'd expect, with some heartfelt tunes about love and life, played to a quick-handed banjo. And then it takes the turn you're still expecting with "Peace of Mind," a song adressed to peace protesters about how they are hurting the feelings of veterans and Red-Cross workers.

But then, then - "Redneck Soldiers" comes on. "Where my redneck soldiers / Line 'em up, line 'em up, uh, uh." Yeeeah. The music is some kind of AC/DC country-rap fusion. The sound is something that even Wyclef couldn't pull off if he wanted to. This method continues in "Country Style," "Country Girlz," and "Bounce Wit Me." Notice "Girlz" and "Wit" being used in the song titles - yes, these songs are sung with true rap-style slang as well. With content about drinking, getting high, picking up girls and getting militant, the party don't stop.

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Dogwood Winter Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford
Rural Rhythm

Author:
SAS

These two bluegrass guys might as well be brothers. They think along the same lines, whether in their rhythmical configurations or their harmonizing. A traditional, award-winning bluegrass group, Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford and the rest of their gang have come up with 14 more taut originals, reeling us in to the bluegrass mindset.

Many of the songs roll along faster than life, though the group isn't afraid to get a bit moody, or even nostalgic. Their attitude isn't particularly badass, nor are Gulley and Stafford goodie-goodies. Rather, they fall into that crowd pleasing, top-of-their-genre category. Some listers may prefer something a bit more outside the lines, something more messy. But if beautiful, detail-oriented bluegrass is what you want, then look no further than Dogwood Winter.

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Ain't Got No Troubles Eden Brent
Little Boogaloo / Louisiana Entertainment / Big Daddy / MVD / Yellow Dog

Author:
SAS

Eden Brent, master of voice. Eden Brent, master of blazz. With the sounds of the Mississippi Delta swimming beneath her, Brent's third album, Ain't Got No Blues, pulls us further along a track she's been on for years now. This path is recreating rich, crowded sounds of bluesy-jazz days gone by, but with studio-crisp recording quality. Eden Brent is actually smoking a cigarette on the black and white cover of the album. Eden Brent, time traveler extraordinaire.

Even the simplest of blues lyrics - and the best ones are often the simplest - are turned into truth under her handling. However, even amid the traditionally simple blues lyrics layouts, Brent shows off her songwriting style with nuggets of nuanced storytelling. Ever been in love with a drunk? She has: "Blues in the bedroom / In the middle of the night / He’s passed out here beside me / So he cannot hold me tight." Yet even during the most challenging times, Brent maintains that bluesy spark of hope. In her case, it's a shining charisma that lets us know she's been there too, and everything is gonna be okay.

Single of the Week: "Later Than You Think"

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In and Out of Consciousness: The Greatest Hits, 1990 - 2010, 2 CD Set Robbie Williams
Astralwerks / EMI

Author:
Sophia A. Strosberg

In and Out of Consciousness is a collection of Robbie Williams's work to date. The young Brit-electro-pop star has been making music since the tender age of sixteen, when he answered a newspaper ad and joined boy-band Take That. This compilation is shows his body of work off in 39 songs, one of them brand new and made with Take That band mate Gary Barlow, which whom Williams hadn't worked since 1995.

In spite of the fact that all of these songs came out between 1990 and 2010, you'll get the distance feeling that you've flown back to the synth-laden 1980s. What sets Williams out from other soft dance artists is his willingness to follow his whims in creating his songs. He doesn't shy away from hip-hop sounds, falsetto and even a bit of funk. However, his sound is usually wholly what you'd expect from any Brit-pop. The new song on the album, "Shame," is a sweet little love tune, with a catchy guitar riff that sounds like it was heavily inspired by the Beatles' "Blackbird."

Single of the Week: Mr. Bojangles

Editor's Note: Robbie Williams has been a delicious guilty pleasure for USA ears. The singer has reinvented and promoted himself as the human embodiment of show business. Great Job.

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Heartland Highway Sister Hazel
Croakin' Poets / Rock Ridge

Author:
SAS

Alternative rockers Sister Hazel aren't a band led by a nun, but rather named after one. The original Sister Hazel had run a shelter for the down-and-out in Gainesville, Florida, in the 1970s and '80s, and the Gainesville band wanted to honor her spirit by naming their band after her. They do a decent job. Their music is optimistic and ready-to-please. They've appeared on several film soundtracks, and surely popped up during the most hopeful points of each film.

The rock music has its share southern influence, but distortion outweighs slide guitar throughout the album. In turn, easy jazz and non-offensive lyrics keep this from turning into anything too exciting. Release, Sister Hazel's album prior to Heartland Highway, made it big on iTunes. Heartland Highway's comforting sounds may drive it to the top as well. But don't be fooled into thinking that Sister Hazel is all goodwill: They made a big deal with Ford in 2009, which not only may be a sign of selling out but also a sign of their political stance. Corporate funding may be the only way to make money as a band, but their ethics are at stake.

Artist to Watch

Editor's Note: Their collection of happy, roots-rock songs has always made this band a gem.

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Live! In Chicago Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
Loud and Proud / Roadrunner

Author:
SAS

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a young blues guitarist doing big things. He began breaking into the rock charts in 1995 at age 18. The interesting thing is, even songs that he wrote so early in his career - and so early in his life - carry the quality of an experienced songwriter. Perhaps the angst inherent in teenagehood is truly also the powerhouse behind great blues.

Live! In Chicago puts forth the blues in an energetic and driven manner. Moments of humor and heartfelt excitement at playing for the Chicago audience add more points to his quick, distorted-guitar, psychedelic-inspired blues style. Just the right amount of jamming, and strong riff work, makes the album ok even for those who aren't normally prepared to sit through long live concerts or repetitive blues sets. Shepherd does a phenomenal job feeding gritty Louisiana blues to all of those diehard Chicago blues fans.

Single of the Week: "True Lies"

Editor's Note: There is a total spark of originality in his playing. He's found his own style, like every great guitarist of note before him. His guitar has done his talking for him. So far, it's doing just fine.

Late But Great

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Duets Abroad Ruthie Dornfeld
Hearth

Author:
SAS

Fiddler Ruthie Dornfeld herself would have been enough, but on Duets Abroad, you get to hear a wide variety of her expert friends and contacts from across Europe. The album makes clear Dornfeld's love for making music with a range of instruments, each with different aural effects. On her fiddle, she accompanies the jaw harp and the bagpipe, the mandola and harmonium, the accordion and Transylvanian shepherd's flute, the harmonica and her favorite over the years, the accordion.

The focus of this album is on the music of Northern Europe in particular - Finland, Denmark and Hungary are well represented. But Dornfeld noodles her way into South America, Scotland and even travels back in time to the Middle Ages. Dornfeld's showcase on Duets Abroad is not in her fine fiddling, but in her impeccable taste in musical style and musical companions.

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The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted Gucci Mane
1017 Brick Squad / Asylum / Warner Bros.

Author:
SAS

The Dirty South rises again in the form of Gucci Mane. This rapper comes with street cred shining on all his mixtapes, which feature solid lyrics and production throughout. He has what it takes to hook you with his rhymes, so just wait until the hook comes in. You'll have it in your head for weeks. However, the big budget and a desire to please everyone seems to get in the way of his recent The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted. The songs are not catchy enough to create radio hits, and most of them still don't make it to the realm of intellectual rap.

However, there are some amazing moments. The beats shine in unusual places: Swizz Beatz makes an entire song out of a clip from Ed Banger Record's electro-grunge duo Justice, for example. The lyrics do pop here and there: Nicki Minaj's appearance marks another rung on her ladder to solo stardom, and the closing track, "Grown Man," provides a passionate Gucci lesson. The Appeal in a nutshell: Sometimes, you just want to think about money and kind of daydream. This is for those times.

Mighty, Mighty!

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A Headful of Stars The Sails
Rainbow Quartz

Author:
SAS

Michael Gagliano hopped in a time machine in 1969 so that he'd be able to bring us some tunes fresh from the that sitar-fusion, out-of-both-mind-and-body time period. Now, 41 years later, we get the results. And somehow, Londoner Gagliano and his musical company are all still young and hip. But never mind the guy behind the music, let's focus on the music itself. The comparison to the most psychedelic of the Beatles' sounds is inevitable, right down the that same guitar fuzz, odd organ effect and epic vocal harmony. However, here and there, you'll hear a snatch of Led Zepplin or, hmm, Neutral Milk Hotel.

But comaprisons shouldn't overrule The Sails' own image. What they have going on is that they take what in most past music has been just hints of strange Eastern-influenced psych-rock and bring it all the way to the edge of the cliff and over, leaving never a dull moment. When you wanted more weirdness in the Beatles, you can now get it with The Sails. Musically, there's really just one less-inspiring song on the mix, and as far as the lyrics - they range widely enough that there's something for everyone. Are The Sails doing something new, and thus as mindblowing, as the Beatles were? Not really. But they are doing it damned well, and the drugs that have been sitting around in your spinal cord will thank you for listening.

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year Take 6
Heads Up / Concord

Author:
SAS

Ten cozy a cappella arrangements fill up this Christmas album as performed by Take 6, the African American a cappella group that has been performing since the late 1980s. The songs selected range from a wordless version of The Sugarplum Dance to White Christmas to The Grinch. All performed with energy and often a sense of humor, Take 6 will bring you a sense of the season with their quality renditions of these classics.

The listening comes smoothly with The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The Christmas vibe is the main focus of the sound, rather than any particularities in the music. It won't steal attention from your romance or your family or whatever else you're into on Christmas. But it will enhance those magical weeks. Take 6 will add a subtle gospel and R&B sound to the holiday season, while maintaining a wholly Christmassy feel and showing off the beauty of human voices used together.

Editor's Note: Innovative vocal sextet Take 6 has an uncanny sense of history and taste. They combine classic gospel singing with a unique approach and unparalled arrangements.

Let the Good Times Roll

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Two The Chapin Sisters
Lake Bottom

Author:
SAS

The Chapin Sisters probably started out vocalizing together for fun in some echoey place. But somewhere along the way, they evolved the sport of harmonizing into high art. They added instruments here and there - tambourine, keyboard, guitar, banjo, etc. - and of this is born Two. What the Chapin Sisters do is intuitively create the most desireable harmonies possible, things that will make you feel, force you to feel. Whether you are bored or numb with the pain of the blues, the Chapin Sisters will knock you out of your rut.

Their lyrics are no less poiniant. "I get happy when you love me / I get sad when you're feeling blue ... If I can feel the things you feel / Why can't I make you want me?" Most of the songs are about love (and loss of it), but their sentiments are so particular, so on-point, that even a jaded romantic will be touched. Sometimes folky but more often haunting, this may the the Portishead for the thrid-wave folk-revival generation.

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Come Back America Nathan Shaffer
Hey Dep

Author:
SAS

Nathan Shaffer's rock album, dedicated to his late son, covers love, sure, but politics is the main focus his energy. He has a message to get though to us, and he's doing it with swell arrangements and a passionate voice. Ethereal sounds sometimes break through the rock foreground to get us in the mood for thinking, really thinking, about the music. Then, ripping electric guitar. Then he speaks: "They hide the truth wrapped up in red, white and blue / The old men talk, the young men die."

Shaffer's work on Come Back America is commendable. In a world flooded with rock, his maintains a unique edge; his singing, while not spotless, has character that fits perfectly the intensity of his stories. His backup musicians do a knock-up job, too. Quite simply, his concepts, melodies, singing style and lyrics collude to re-inspire. Come Back America seems to say, "America is rock and roll, so let's start putting some meaning back into the music."

Single of the Week: "Come Back America"

Political Album of Week

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Joyce Cobb With the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio Joyce Cobb
Archer

Author:
SAS

Ella, you've come back to life, and you're doing all manner of jazz, from Cole Porter to Thelonious Monk to Johnny Mercer. Oh, wait, no, it Joyce Cobb. Her beautiful voice is reminicent of the old-timers, but she adds her own sensual twist to each piece she works on. Surely, she is also the inspiration for the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio's playing on the album too, as they reinterpret songs to each song's most lucious potential.

"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is one of the best on the album, with its unexpected hots, and the rest of the quicker songs also show jazz at its best. However, the slow songs hold their own, too, with Cobb keep us interested throughout. Her attention to the mood of each song seems to tell us that she's have thrived musically in any era, and that if we just wait long enough, she'll blow us away with the robot jazz of 2050.

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BTR Big Time Rush
Nickelodeon / Columbia / Sony

Author:
SAS

Ain't nothing but a perfectly formulated teeny-bopper album. This boy band has so much less character than Justin Bieber. But it is more party-oriented and less fixated on kids hooking up. With techno-pounding synthesizers, emotional R&B and even some modern-sounding clubby beats and samples, BTR will certainly be able to hold its own at the next kid party. And the smooth-faced, overwhelmingly white cuties in the band will make today's young ladies squeal just as my generation oogled The New Kids on the Block.

The lyric-writing is simple and non-specific, much like the writing for Big Time Rush's more mature counterparts. There's an air of band's (supposed) fame emanating from the music, and a confidence that is catchy. Really, this isn't the worst stuff that young gals could be listening to. It's mostly positive, and the arrangements are relatively pleasant. However, it won't be too long until the kids outgrow this Nickelodeon pop.

New Artist of the Week

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Celestial Navigation James Hyland and the Joint Chiefs
Ananaki Records

Author:
Kyle McKinley

Ten-plus years as the front man for festival regulars South Austin Jug Band has provided James Hyland with an intimate understanding of fickle audiences and the dead-ends that accompany whatever is new and hip. "Celestial Navigation," Hyland's first significant attempt to market himself as a songwriter and solo artist, learns such lessons well and replies with a record that avoids niches and cliches. This is a surprisingly genuine attempt to respond to the wide gamut of influences on contemporary roots/ americana music: hints of honky-tonk and nashville country are soothed into a sound and spirit more properly influenced by Neil Young, Will Oldham and Gillian Welch.

Fans of the South Austin Jug Band may be surprised, however, by the sober tones and sobriety of Hyland's songwriting. This is not the toe-tapping barroom stuff of "Dark and Weary World": rather than crowd-pleasing virtuosity, Hyland and the Joint Chiefs emphasize a full, warm ambiance and heartfelt, often stinging lyricism.


History From Below Delta Spirit
Rounder

Author:
SAS

Delta Spirit is capturing the summer road trip with the help of banging drum, picked guitar ballads, electrified walls of sound. Over the hill you get the calls of the wild, around the bend you get a sweet song searching for peace of mind. They use all of the tricks in the indie rock book, and invent some new ones, too.

Delta’s got the country lilt, but they in no way have the bright and colorful sound of most young country-inspired rockers. They keep it feeling cool and crisp. Their rhythms are a hugely important part of their music, a bigger-than-life sound created in no small part by orchestral drums. Finally, Delta Spirit’s intensely sung phrases positively hang in the air like thick clouds of emotion, bringing them to the forefront of today’s post-emo rock. They’re not sad. They’re playing music.

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Chicken & Biscuits Colt Ford
Average Joe's / Full Scope

Author:
SAS

The music is charming and sweet, and often a little raucous, but that doesn't prepare you for what is store when track three hits. Chicks and Chicken, that describes what's on ol' Colt Ford's mind most of the time, at least as far as you can tell at first. Country-rock usually includes a banjo these days, and this time it's every big as fun to hear that acoustic-electric fusion. High energy music combined with lyrics like "Lord Have Mercy, I love her kisses / And I can't get enough, kinda like chicken and biscuits" means fun.

But what is in store is hilarity and more of this growing trend of country music adding hip-hop to its repertoire of styles. On "Diggin'," Ford thrusts us into a world where you are drunk and high, riding in your digger down the bar, with tinted windows, being chaced by the "po-po." W-w-what?? This is a little different that what Coldwater Creek Band gives us in the way of hip-hop. It's still hilarious, but somehow more self-conscious, or more in line with the spirit of hip-hop, while Coldwater Creek is sort of making fun of it. In a contest, Colt Ford would clearly win. He's less of a conservative asshole and way more witty.

The song "Ride On, Ride Out" is the one to keep an eye on. It features DMC, and some sweet-ass beats. What more could you ask for: "Ride On, Ride Out / From New York City to the Dirty South!"

Single of the Week: "Hip-Hop in a Honky Tonk" feat. Kevin Fowler

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

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Who Needs Johnny Who Needs Johnny
Direct Music / Red Eye

Author:
SAS

Teenaged girls listen to a lot of pop-punk, though there is so much bad pop-punk out there. Fortunately for them, Who Needs Johnny is cool enough to start making pop-punk a viable genre again. The music is relatively raw in production, bringing it a bit closer to the realm of genuine punk in sound that so many of the Who Needs Johnny's counterparts. The lyrics are still mostly about love - but then, aren't most songs in the world? And the real cool thing is that Who Needs Johnny is fronted by two women, both of whom sing, and both of whom are ready to reclaim their subjectivity, revealing themselves complex, active players that are so often flattened in boy-band pop-punk.

Who Needs Johnny provides a great rebuke not just to past boyfriends, but to the dominance of dudeliness. Femmy and cute and steadfast all at once, they will be able to hold the attention of youthful people while adding dimension to the listening experience. You'll still be excited for that day a couple of years when she reaches for the Le Tigre. Then again, Who Needs Johnny might develop in a couple of years as well.

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Teflon Don Rick Ross
Slip N Slide / Island Def Jam / Universal

Author:
SAS

For Rick Ross's fourth release, Teflon Don, he's stack guest star upon guest star and party beat on top of anthem. There is plenty of soul in the background, bass in the foreground, and flows that shred the topics of love, trouble, weed and partying. Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Kanye West, Diddy, Gucci Mane and Cee-Lo are just some of those accompanying Ross. Though each song has a different guest, the tracks are unified by Ross's rich voice, love of women and taste for the R&B sounds of yesteryear.

This is a style-oriented album. The beats are warm, wide and inspiring, and the lyrics are excited and charming. The vocals showcase the various qualities of today's rapping, exposed to us with minimal AutoTune cloaking. What it lacks is a sense of deeper poetics. But then, we can't all be acutely articulate all of the time. This should go down as the fun, positive vibrational club album of 2010.

Single of the Week: "MC Hammer" feat. Gucci Mane

Best Album of the Week!

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Live, Volume 3, CD and DVD The Avett Brothers
American / Columbia

Author:
Kyle McKinley

Following on the critical acclaim, and substantial media blitz, of their 2009 hit record "I and Love and You," "Live, Volume 3" is the only official 2010 release from americana darlings The Avett Brothers. Recorded live at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte NC before a rowdy and appreciative home-town crowd, this album presents the band an opportunity to showcase songs from a decade of independent recordings that recent fans may yet to be acquainted with. To that end the record is a smashing success: as an overall listening experience the tracks are marred by over-emphasis on the hooting and hollering audience and the hokey and inept stage presence of front man Seth Avett.

To be sure, the success that the band has met in recent years is well deserved; like their fellow roots-rock / country crossover stars Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers are likely to remain favorites on the festival circuit and amongst the NPR bluegrass crowd. "Live, Volume 3" highlights the group's frenetic performing ability and soulful lyricism. If they are to make the move to join the truly great artists of their genre(s), they still need to dig into those sources to identify sort of lasting content and political currency that they often refer to but rarely achieve.

Single of the Week: "I and Love and You"

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Bullets in the Gun, Deluxe Edition Toby Keith
Showdog /Universal

Author:
SAS

There a story to every song on Toby Keith's new Bullets in the Gun. Some are totally down to earth, like in the song "Trailerhood" (more hip-hop? Not this time), about life in the trail park. Others have a bigger, more fantastic theme, like the title track, which tells the tale of two young lovers in trouble on the Mexico border.

The imagistic specifics of the lyrics are what make Keith's country music stand out from the pack. The music itself is quality but typical. But he and lyrics are are - and ought to be - the focus of Bullets in the Gun. Even the love songs have the kinds of details that, ironically, remind us of our own unique and detailed love affairs. Get into your honky-tonkin' be-boppin' with this handsome singer's deluxe-edition album, which includes four entirely danceable, almost bluesy live cuts at the end of the recording.

Single of the Week: "In a Couple of Days"

Editor's Note: Toby Keith has become a superstar and a household name. His albums have no filler, and he has created recordings that are always totally new introductions to the man himself. With this album, he's done it again.

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