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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Richard Thompson on acoustic guitar is a treat. On electric guitar, he's sublime. That's why we're excited about "Sweet Warrior," a mostly plugged-in return after the acoustic discourse of 2005's "Front Parlour Ballads" and the soundtrack to the Werner Herzog film "Grizzly Man." The 14 tracks find Thompson in typical tasteful form, playing with understated flash that straddles the transatlantic divide to embrace Celtic soul and rootsy Americana, with bits of jazz and Jamaica ("Bad Monkey," "Francesca") thrown into the mix. The album's highlight, however, is one of the acoustic pieces -- ""Johnny's Far Away," a seven-minute-plus opus in which Thompson's guitar and mandolin intertwine with and dance around the fiddle work by Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins.
ALBUM: DOUBLE UP (Jiva/Zomba)
Aside from radio-pumped singles "I'm a Flirt Remix" and "Same Girl," it's a very sexually explicit R. Kelly who greets fans on this outing. Opening with the short posturing track "The Champ" ("I've been through hell in the belly of the beast/You can hate me, I don't care"), Kelly isn't shy about quickly getting down to boudoir business. The title track with Snoop Dogg outlines a tryst with two females, while additional variations on sexual interplay abound on such cuts as "Tryin' to Get a Number" with Nelly and "Freaky in the Club." After describing lovemaking via two radically different motifs -- the jungle ("The Zoo") and outer space ("Sex Planet") -- Kelly downshifts into traditional mode on the heartfelt ballad "Havin' a Baby" and the Virginia Tech anthem "Rise Up." This jarring juxtaposition only underscores Kelly's Marvin Gaye-reminiscent struggle between the carnal and the spiritual.
ALBUM: BREAKFAST IN BED (Time Life Records)
For a powerful singer like Osborne, having "One of Us" be your one career hit must really stink. The 1995 single placed her squarely in the bland, folky Lilith Fair category. She's tried to correct that perception since then, ably covering Aretha Franklin, touring with Phil Lesh and performing in the award-winning documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." A VP at Time Life caught her virtuoso version of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" in the film and signed her to record "Breakfast in Bed," a combo of originals and similarly top-tier covers. The beauty of the album, though, is its small scope. Osborne tackles titles like "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Midnight Train to Georgia" with sparse accompaniment, slower tempos and schmaltz-free readings, using the inherent pathos of her voice to maximum yet subdued effect.
ALBUM: TALES DON'T TELL THEMSELVES (Atlantic Records)
Funeral for a Friend vaults over its post-hardcore foundation and lands smack into driving pop/rock on "Tales Don't Tell Themselves," completely clearing the emo boundary marker. This has fans already twittering online that the band has gone radio-friendly. The concept record of a fisherman lost at sea offers metaphors aplenty (longing, loss, fear, passing the time) that directly apply to the lives of musicians. But aside from grand moments like "All Hands on Deck -- Part 1: Raise the Sail" and the orchestral wall that builds on "The Sweetest Wave," you don't get the feeling that a continuous story binds the album together. Still, "Into Oblivion (Reunion)," "Out of Reach" and "Walk Away" charge onward with such optimism and hope there's little doubt of a happy ending at the end of this "Tale."
ALBUM: RELENTLESS (Broken Bow Records)
Jason Aldean and producer Michael Knox set the bar high on Aldean's self-titled, platinum 2005 debut. Thankfully, Aldean's second album delivers as well. "Relentless" will never be confused with a sparse singer-songwriter album -- every cut features full, guitar-driven production. The first single, the attitude-laden "Johnny Cash," is already a hit, sitting at No. 15 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Other standouts include "My Memory Ain't What It Used to Be," which finds the singer wondering aloud why he thought the grass would be greener on the other side, and "Back in This Cigarette," about trying to rekindle love in a relationship ("It's like trying to put smoke back in this cigarette"). And with instrumentation reminiscent of "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," "I Break Everything I Touch" is a cautionary tale of the singer's propensity for messing up the important things.
ALBUM: GRIME, SILK AND THUNDER (BluFire/Silver Label/Tommy Boy)
Unlike rock/electronic- or DJ-branded artists, dance music artists -- those singers of songs -- rarely get the mainstream respect they deserve. Ultra Nate may reverse this with "Grime, Silk and Thunder." Working with an armful of producers and artists, including StoneBridge and Chris Willis, Nate manages to temper her rhythms of the night with sturdy pop sensibilities. A glittering, tech-soul cover of the Pointer Sisters' "Automatic" has already topped Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart, while its visually arresting video is a YouTube sensation. Songs like "Give It All You Got" and "Feel Love" are as gorgeously uplifting and anthemic as Nate's 10-year-old international hit, "Free." In a clever and smart move, Nate reinterprets two of her early club hits ("It's Over Now" and "Scandal") to winning effect. At the center of it all are Nate's sublime blues-tinged vocals.
ALBUM: POPROCKS (Sony BMG)
Pambo is part of Mexico's new generation of singer-songwriters. On her debut album, produced by Aureo Baqueiro (of Sin Bandera and Reik fame), she contributes poppy, radio-friendly tracks with rock edges, reminiscent of Avril Lavigne and decidedly youth-friendly. Pambo, who co-wrote most of the tracks here and penned all the lyrics, isn't attempting to be deep or clever like, say, Natalia LaFourcade. She sings about love in simple, colloquial terms, but the melodies are just the right mix of catchy and well-crafted. It all goes down easy, but a little something more is needed to really cut through the crowd. Still, this is an auspicious debut that is making waves in Mexico.