Clapton Eric Clapton
Duck / Reprise / Warner Bros.

Author:
Sophia A. Strosberg

Eric Clapton was my Mom's musical hero. And for good reason. She has stayed cool all these years, even cooler than Clapton. But on Clapton, he's reached for inspiration and done it again. With nuanced key combinations, restrained blues guitar riffs and nice song choices than strike a balance between originals and covers, Clapton well deserves its high chart positions.

Clapton's songwriting skills are at their strongest when he is in a guitarist state of mind, but even songs in which he is joined by a host of other instrumentalists and vocalists come out with a mature subtlety and strength. In the songs where he's not playing guitar at all, you will miss it. You may sometimes wish he could have gotten grittier on Clapton. But the good thing about his is that his music has changed throughout his life, that he follows his heart in what he wishes to play. When he strays from his heart's path, his music suffers. So, Eric, keep playing what you love, and we'll keep listening. But don't forget to wail out once in a while.

Single of the Week: "Travelin' Alone"

Editor's Note: Eric Clapton may have earned his reputation with his guitar, but he owes his solo career to his voice. It's his singing that has carried his best work, a testament to the fact that Clapton is, at the end of the day, more than just another guitar hero.

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Nothing (Deluxe Version) N.E.R.D.
Star Trak /Interscope /UMG

Author:
SAS

With beats that range from fly and funky to mock gunshot clicky to electro-rock, and a cohesive lyrical goal, Pharrell Williams and his band have done it again, this time with help on the music from Daft Punk. Nothing (Deluxe Version) has an upbeat spirit and plenty of positivity, but is in no way ignoring the issues on everyone's minds right now - the economy, the war, the environment. Although most of the lyrics are about gettin' the gals (and admiring them), their delivery on waves of original, drum-laden earscapes keeps them fresh.

N.E.R.D. has been around since the early 2000s, and has been making weirdly catchy music ever since. Nothing is particularly listenable, particularly sexual and particularly bizzare. There is an entire song about being a fish. "So while the federal buildings blow, below, fish glow / How lovely that must be / You shoulda listened to Jacques Costeau, don't say, you don't / Stop sending your trash to sea." Williams, let your sex-crazed nerd flag fly.

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Speak Now Taylor Swift
Big Machine / Universal

Author:
SAS

Country-pop singer Tayor Swift has taken the pop music scene like lightning against a dry, tired sky. But if she is the lightning, and she provides the story and the style to attract people, why is it so hard to hear the thunder? It's mostly because she adheres to that formulaic song-writing strategy. There's really not too much going on. Plenty of people have nice voices, and plenty of people can write simple country-pop songs like hers. It would be nice to believe that she's a young prodigy pop star. But she's really not doing anything different.

What you will hear are some love-oriented story-songs called out by a youngster all dolled up in princess clothes. She's okay. But you won't find the explaination for her glory on Speak Now. Unless, of course, it is that people will never stop licking up sappy love tunes with overly emotional production sung by cute 21-year-old girls. Taylor Swift, it's nice that some of your lyrics are a bit angry. But do more. We think maybe you can. So do it.

SIngle of the Week: "Back to December"

Editor's Note: She creates lyrics that define every aspect of life's being.

BEST ALBUM OF THE WEEK!

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Happy Talk Kermit Ruffins
Basin Street / MRI

Author:
SAS

Traditional, swinging brass jazz pushes you off your barstool and into the dancing arms of a waiting guy or lady. Kermit Ruffins leads his band with sometimes blustery, always beautiful trumpet playing and heartfelt, sweet 'n' gritty vocals. Ruffins has a gift for fusing the New Orleans jazz style with other styles that fall into his plane of interest. On Happy Talk, song by song, you hear a bit of the blues, a bit of Latin influence, a bit of the standards, some show tune flair and a little of his original writing.

Ruffins is that reefer-smoking cool jazz guy that we cannot help but think is very cool. His coolness seeps into his music like sexuality into expensive cologne. Ruffins may be making classic sounds, but he proves to us that being traditional in no way needs to include being stuffy.

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Tiger Suit KT Tunstall
Relentless / Virgin / EMI

Author:
SAS

This is one sweet hipster rocker lady with a pretty, throaty voice that's a great compliments to her backup band. The band itself is vibey and scrapy and catchy. It's rhythmic rock with a bunch of electrified sounds seeping through its guitar fibers. KT Tunstall is has a propensity for rocking out to single lines of the songs, giving Tiger Suit a hypnotic feel at times.

The music is often danceable. KT - or at least her music - should probably hang out with MGMT. Tunstall is making nice drum-oriented sounds with that Heart-revival singing style, and some part-badass, part-poetic lyrics that can be as cryptic or sensible as you want them to be. Tunstall's songs would do well to find their ways into the jukeboxes of college town bars. But they can stand up just fine in a pair of headphones as well.

ARTIST TO WATCH

Editor's Note: Her music is a haunting meditation on escape.

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More! Booka Shade
Get Physical

Author:
SAS

House music has, happily, transformed over the past 20 years. With upgrades in technology and the constant forward march of human creativity, we get artistic progess in the world of the most synthy of electronic musics. The results of this transformation can be seen in the sounds of Booka Shade, a duo that produces sparse but pleasing electronic music in the rhythm-form of house. The album is designed to showcase a full range of emotion, from expectant to the satisfied. However, the level of excitement never rises so high as to make your blood hot. Things build and conclude, but they rarely every boil over. Expect downtempo rhythms from start to finish.

The theme is an exultation to music itself. Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merziger throw word clips and singing bits about the party and groove and the immanent importance of the aural. They also focus on naked song arrangements that can be picked apart and explored, possibly in order to communicate their love for making the music to their listeners. Chill, moody, bloopy and focused, More! gives you just that - more of Booka Shade's self-conscious musical configurations.

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Dreams Neil Diamond
Columbia /Sony

Author:
SAS

Neil Diamond's characteristic enunciation and kindness makes this album of rock covers as charming as it is. It's fun to hear the entirely square Neil Diamond singing your favorite extra-mild rock songs. A fiddle-laden version of "Blackbird" flies. "Hallelujah" ties you to the kitchen chair. Okay, it's not that dramatic, but it's pretty cute.

Listening to this is like playing "What's on your MP3 player?" with Diamond. And it's pretty much what you'd expect. It makes you wonder if Neil Diamond's soul is always as peace as his choices in music seem to indicate, or if he picks the songs based on his need to mellow himself out. Ok, so his choices in musicians are great, but he pushes them to the edge of their ability to take on a cover version.

LATE BUT GREAT!

The Jewish Elvis acheived his greatest artistic trancendence on his live album, "Hot August Night." Look at him: Neil Diamond, at one with the music. His bows in reverence, and his hair forms a halo above his silver-studded, blue-denim jumpsuit as he tortures another classic song. Truly, he is the sultan of schmucks.

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Reunited The Jazz Passengers
Justin Time / Allegro

Author:
SAS

The Jazz Passengers ride somewhere between experimental jamming and a place called reality. Electric guitar, keyboard, strings and brass, rhythmic melody repetition and blast-off solos, each has a place on this train. The music is not quite as yawningly dramatic as Charles Mingus, but you'll hear the similarities in some songs. Other songs, however, totally switch gears and take off in the direction of jazz-funk fusion, or spoken word poetry, or Spanish Harlem.

Reunited is something interesting for your ears. You'll be continually taken off-gaurd by a pretty violin, or puppet-workshop ambiants, or a snippet of lyrical wisdom. These guys have been at this since 1987, but they still have something creative to offer. Reunited is the poster child for thinking outside the box. And it reminds you that jazz-speak is still alive and well. Organize this one amid your Mingus, DJ Spooky and Zappa. It won't fit anywhere else.

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Saturday Morning Apocalypse Powerglove
EntertainmentOne

Author:
SAS

Why does it feel so pleasurable to listen to this metal album? It has the sensibility of video game music and melodies that are almost Latin in flavor. The harmonies of the twin guitar lines are complex but perfectly discernable. Small, unexpected embellishments by the bass and drums also go a long way. Basically, this is a lovely instrumental creation by four guys who want to mirror the appeal of Saturday morning cartoons. Powerglove does not ignore the numbing effect of the television set on a youngster. Rather, their album cover depicts a staring kid drooling in front of a TV while the world of the supernatural swirls inside the TV set and is echoed in the surrounding room.

All of the track titles refer to songs from TV or a movie. And indeed, you get to hear a sweet metal rendition of that song. Each is carefully crafted from fast fingers, fine steel pickups and, obviously, the finest of ears for detail. Sug-a-sug and bleedle-dee your way through X-Men, Batman, Inspector Gadget, The Simpsons and so many other shows you forgot you slogged through for hours as a young kid. Saturday Morning Apocalypse's versions of theme songs are completely without any cheese that's not already present in metal music. And they capture the spirit of childhood much better better than the originals.

MIGHTY, MIGHTY!

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Merry Ex-Mas: Holiday Songs for the Divorced and Soon To Be The Irreconcilables
Merry Ex-Mas

Author:
SAS

Merry Ex-Mas looks pretty cheesy at first. And, well, it is. But it's also pretty funny. If you are the type who is too grumpy and heartbroken to enjoy any traditional Christmas songs, try this album on. The Irreconcilables understand, and they really will cheer you up during this most challenging time of the year. These parody Christmas songs were written by three fellows - Don Pfrimmer, Mike Reid and Will Robinson - who have also written popular songs for the likes of Prince, George Michael, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Reba McEntire and others. Thus, Merry Ex-Mas may be funny, but it's seriously well-executed.

There are no bloopers or weak moments. The writers just genuinely understand the hardship that the holidays can mean, and wanted to bring a little genuine light to the season. And not the light of some magical star shining over the happy, young, naive family squatting in a stable, still unaware of the arguing and hardship to come. "On the third day of Christmas, my true love took from me: three house keys, two bank accounts and the promise of true love!"

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Come Around Sundown Kings of Leon
RCA /Sony

Author:
SAS

Kings of Leon are traditionally one of those big-rock bands. They strove for a big sound, for big arenas, for big attention. But with Come Around Sundown, they are backing off a bit, and it is to their benefit. Laid-back is cool these days, and the world is riling us up enough. What we need is a break. And Kings of Leon try to offer this. The lead singer's voice is nicely showcased within a framework of ringing guitars and chill drumbeats.

Another boon to Kings of Leon is that their lyrics try to dig past the generic love experience and explore some of the more confusing meanings that go allong with every affair. Grunge love, grunge guitar: that's what Come Around Sundown is all about. Pick this one up in case you're alone next sundown. If it doesn't soothe you, maybe it will attract a sweetie to you.

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!

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Illuminations Josh Groban
143 / Reprise / Warner Bros.

Author:
SAS

Josh Groban is a song composer and singer determined to tell stories in song, as much through mood as through lyrics. He has risen to the surface of US consciousness for his operatic voice and sweet sense of romantic popular music. Illuminations is expansive. Its themes and traditional aural aestetics keep it available in the easy listening category, but it's emotionally intense enough that it really shouldn't be considered a carefree listen.

Groban is considered a young heartthrob who stands outside of the rock world, but make no mistake: he is hip enough. Traces of Björkian theater influence his songwriting and instrumentation. Listen for classical guitar, clarinet and intense leaps of key. Do not expect to hear any traces of rock, or anything too blantently weird. It's just Josh, and his determination to express himself to the fullest.

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For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots - Soundtrack Various Artists
Blix Street

Author:
SAS

The music on this soundtrack isn't terrible, though it often involves unmistakable military drum rolls and it has patriotism rolling in like hot dogs on the fourth of July. Much of the album is instrumental movie music, but there are some highlights. Tracks with singing, such as "We'll Meet Again," are nice, and some of the music is entirely unexpected: "Mo Nam Blues" is some slick fingerpicking. There are some famous and important songs on here.

But that is just the music. The spirit of the album is somewhat more disturbing. It comes at this story from the assumption that US military goals are worth serving, which they are not. In fact, they are worth fighting against. For the small amount of non-movie music on this recording, it's not worth dealing with  awkward politics that requires already oppressed people to give their lives so that the same oppressive system may continue, even if in other forms. Perhaps the film is more nuanced, but considering it is sponsored by the US Army, US Bank, Ford and State Farm Insurance, it may not be.

Editor's Note: There is a picture of the famous Tuskegee Airmen on the inside cover of the album with no explanation that the Tuskegee airmen were among our black bothers who fought the Nazis in WWII and were totally subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army.

Single of the Week: "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday

Political Album of the Week

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Rainbow: The Music of Central Asia Vol. 8, CD and DVD Kronos Quartet with Alim & Fargana Qasimov and Homayun Sakhi
ADA / Smithsonian Folkways

Author:
SAS

On Rainbow, The Kronos Quartet plays around within the framework of Central Asian Music. Add vocal buttressing by experienced father-daughter team Alim & Fargana Qasimov, playing by Homayun Sakhi, rubab master and additional work by numerous other Central Asian musicians, and you've got a rare and special musical collaboration on your hands. The Kronos Quartet, of course, adds something almost spooky to the already interesting and minor-keyed music of Afganistan and other Central Asian regions. It's almost like epic tales are told in each song, and you know when the chase is on, when the love affair is brewing, when the resolution comes, even though you can't understand a word.

With six long tracks, a DVD full of special features, and of course, the comprehensive booklet of musical and historical information that Smithsonian Folkways includes in every one of its releases, you'll have the opportunity to become an expert of Central Asian music. And if you're not already, you'll become a fan, too. It's nice that the musical branch of the Smithsonian is so much more together than its conservative, art-sensoring museum counterpart.

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Gone for Good My Jerusalem
SKH

Author:
SAS

Dramatic, with plenty of backup chimes, strings and hollow drums, My Jerusalem is an indie band with a sound of their own. Weird backup vocals, sometimes even choral singing, is one of the highlights. Another is that lead singer's understanding tone. It's enough to help you through your heartbreak. Sometimes he soothes you, other times he shrieks with your pain.

The music isn't exactly distractingly unique. Rather, it uses some crunchy percussives, interesting effects, nice loops the occasional brass and kids' instrument sounds to their highest potential. This is perhaps a variation on the indie rock theme, but it's a welcomed one. Gone for Good can certainly point the way for other bands - every band should have a kids xylophone in it. SXSW, keep reelin' those southern bands in.

NEW ALBUM OF THE WEEK!

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Sisterworld, Deluxe 2 CD Set Liars
Mute

Author:
SAS

Liars wrote Sisterworld as a way to unlock the door to the unconscious. It contains their best efforts at creating intuitive sounds and rhythms along with lyrics that fit some of the dream-thoughts we churn through every day and every night. We get spooky chimes, 1970s-era Cure-like electric guitar riffs, beautiful drum rhythms, ambient melodies and entirely listenable metal breakdowns. Are we in a dollhouse or a dungeon? Are we in the minds of the Liars, or in your mind? Or in my mind?

These questions will remain unanswered, but you can count on a good, unique listen. The lead singer's vocal technique suffuses the album with dude energy, and something as texturally rich as Sisterworld would benefit from some female vocals. But overall, this is a grand, experimental pretty-rock project, with the woody natural sounds on the album winning out over the warm, synthetic ones, and the loving grit of a real piano vies against overcompressed punk rock. On the deluxe edition, there's a second CD that goes with Sisterworld's original cuts. It contains remixes of all the songs on Sisterworld, created by such artists as Thom York, the Grogs, the Melvins and some obscure but talented electronic musicians. The results are extremely creative and interesting, so spend a little extra and get the deluxe edition instead.

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Make Hay Jadi Norris
IGO / Jumpin' Armadillo / Select-O-Hits

Author:
SAS

Jadi Norris is an enthusiastic and sincere cowboy. He sings of US soldiers, he sings of the working man's Saturday night. He sings about his wife and his dad and his brother. He sings of travel and the characters he comes across during his shows. Norris wants to let it all out to the world, to share his life experiences and his passionate beliefs. And this he does, through candid country songs and upbeat, light Southern rock.

Norris certainly has that conservative tinge, and he's also perhaps a bit too self-serious. But he does have strong story-telling skills, and lovers of modern country music culture, whether they are hoping for a ho-down or a heartfelt listen, will walk away with something they like. Norris has been through his own tragic accidents, so he's no innocent. If you're ready for the politics, you'll find a charming country boy who is ready to croon and drawl to your heart's delight.

Single of the Week: "Workin' Man's Saturday Night"

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As I Call You Down Fistful of Mercy
HOT

Author:
SAS

Ben Harper has started making music with two other hipster boys (sha-wing!) and they sound great. Okay, so they are more like hipster men. And the other two aren't just anyone: one is George Harrison's son, Dhani Harrison, who Ben Harper met in a skate park, and the other is prolific solo musician Joseph Arthur, who'd been plotting with Ben Harper for a while before this album was recorded.

The name of the band - Fistful of Mercy - and of the album - As I Call You Down - make the band sound like it will either be religious (it is not) or some kind of early-1970s influenced folk music with lots of falsetto and chiming guitars (it is). The chemistry between the guys is great. You get the feeling that the songs came out effortlessly, that the excitements and denouements and desires expressed in the voices and instruments will endlessly bolster one another. If you've ever been drawn to Ben Harper's solo stuff, or you're down with the pretty-as-stained-glass folk guitar sound, and you'd like to hear quality play and harmonization, this is the album for you.

Editor's Note: What Fistful of Mercy writes is real people's music.

SO NICE GOTTA DO IT UP TWICE! (created by the original NYC D.J., Jocko, 1955)

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All the Women I Am Reba
Starstruck / Valory / Universal

Author:
SAS

All the Women I Am is about Reba's pride in her womanhood, and the complicated mix of identities that make her who she is. Besides talking just about her feminine identities, she also confronts the constructed differences between men and women. She certainly doesn't overturn the strict boundaries that exist around gender in the country-music world. But she does create a woman-centric, if a bit essentialist, theme album exploring the female experience in this day and time.

The music itself is the usual country fare, of course with a quality befitting one of the most popular country singers of recent decades. The upbeat tempos throughout the album make this one to try to see her perform live. Her voice itself is, as always, powerful enough to carry any song. Though most of these songs are still love songs, Reba is trying to dig deep here (though she mostly didn't write these songs, she did embrace them). It's a worthy endeavor, since she's already climbed to the top in every other aspect of modern country music.

Editor's Note: There's poetry in the lyrics of All the Women I Am, and Reba turns the lyrics into glorious works of art.

Single of the Week: "Somebody's Chelsea"

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The Volebeats The Volebeats
Rainbow Quartz

Author:
SAS

The Volebeats is one of those old-sounding rock bands. They play as if from the era during which heartthrobs transformed into heads and crooners in acid-dropping stars. But they aren't from back then, they are from now. And they may not be dropping quite enough acid be inventing anything too original on The Volebeats. Still, it's a nice sound, and creates a nice olden-day vibe. The band has been around for more than a decade and is still writing familiar melodies that will keep your mood copesetic and your velvet jacket feeling crisp.

The songs are mainly about that almightly subject of love. The words get their strength perhaps from the vocal harmonies employed throughout the album. If you're looking for something more stimulating, check out Ween's Quebec, or another Rainbow Quartz band, The Sails. But if you want mellow vibes and even-keel, stoney, quiet mood-music, hear out The Volebeats.

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You Get What You Give Zac Brown Band
Southern Ground / Roar / Bigger Picture / No Reserve / Atlantic / Warner Bros.

Author:
SAS

This little country group, led by Zac Brown, holds it down with interesting twists on the country sound. It's not modern country, but it's certainly not old-time country. It's not all jam band or all bluegrass, though it has some of those elements. Rather, it a little of everything, with sing-along lyrics, a sense of humor and plenty of understanding for the average whiskey-drinkin' gal or guy. "Whiskey's gone, but I ain't leavin' / Gotta be a bottle in back!" There are some slower, sadder songs too. From one about people who may be in love, but just can't stay put: "I'm a ramblin' man / I ain't ever gonna change / Got a gypsy soul to blame / And I'm a-leavin'."

Before you decide that you don't like good-hearted country songs, check out You Get What You Give. There's only a little touch of Southern rockIf you need to know a little more before you decide you want to check this out or not, keep in mind that Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson both make appearances on the album. That should tilt you one way or the other.

Editor's Note: The Zac Brown Band shows a whole untapped world of country music that is deep within their souls.

Single of the Week: "As She's Walking Away" feat. Alan Jackson

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