ARTIST: NORAH JONES
ALBUM: THE FALL
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Norah Jones' fourth album, "The Fall," may surprise some of her die-hard fans, or at least disarm them a bit. During the 13-song set, Jones ditches the gentle piano playing of her previous work and rises to a new level of creative boldness. With a new group of musicians behind her, Jones incorporates a fresh, beat-savvy sensibility into these noir-like arrangements, playing plenty of electric guitar and exploring the piercing quality of Wurlitzer electric piano. Jones adopts a smoky voice and soulful veneer for the opening track and first single, "Chasing Pirates," while displaying a slinky kind of ambience on "Light as a Feather (co-written with Ryan Adams). The social commentary "It's Gonna Be" offers garage-rock attitude, and "You've Ruined Me" has a rich Americana flavor. But Jones is still a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll. She straddles those lines in an entirely different manner than she ever has before.
ARTIST: BIG KENNY
ALBUM: THE QUIET TIMES OF A ROCK AND ROLL FARM BOY (Glotown/Love Everybody/Bigger Picture)
In many ways, Big Kenny and John Rich -- who make up country duo Big & Rich -- are the perfect couple. But Big Kenny's new album, "The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farm Boy," is a thoughtful, often profound sojourn into musical independence -- his former major label reportedly rejected every solo project he turned in. That frustration led to the defiant "Free Like Me," which warns, "Don't fit me inside your expectations/You'll never know everything I can be." Big Kenny's musical kinship with Rich is evident on "Wake Up," in which the singer demonstrates moving poetry and surprisingly head-turning lead vocals. The lead single, "Long After I'm Gone," is a midtempo stop-and-smell-the-roses anthem, while "To Find a Heart" may well be the album's sleeper hit. "Farm Boy" puts the artist's musical influences on intriguing display (he cites Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, the Beatles, Queen, Bob Marley and Bill Withers, among others), yet manages the often elusive feat of a cohesive, articulate and entertaining experience from first note to last.
ALBUM: RATED R (Def Jam)
Rihanna may have been a good girl gone bad on her 2007 album, but on her new one, she's a good girl gone bad-ass. During the electric-guitar-soused "Rock Star," the R&B singer revels in her bad-girl rebellion. The singles "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard" find Rihanna singing beefy lyrics over epic piano patterns. But she doesn't talk tough all the way through the set. "Photographs" features Rihanna lamenting over a lost relationship above static drums, whereas on the heartfelt ballad "Stupid in Love," she croons over a pulsating beat, "You don't know what you lost/And you won't realize it till I'm gone."
ARTIST: DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL
ALBUM: ALTER THE ENDING (Interscope Records)
Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba could likely take his pick of any female fan in the audience. But somehow the singer-songwriter always gets his heart broken by the opposite sex. The band's sixth studio album, "Alter the Ending," is a perfectly blended concoction of acoustic melodies, graceful harmonies and powerful anthems wrapped around the story of a man trying desperately to save a failing relationship. The pounding drums on the opener, "Get Me Right," emphasizes Carrabba's pursuit of love, and the heavy title track finds him pleading with the object of his affection to stay. On the closer, "Hell on the Throat," he sings about loss and acceptance over simple acoustic chords. "Alter the Ending" displays much of the same raw insecurities that Carrabba has become known for, but it also shows emotional growth; on "Water and Bridges," he sings, "I'll make the best of the best I can, and I'll be better for it if I ever get my chance."
ARTIST: CARRIE UNDERWOOD
ALBUM: PLAY ON (19 Recordings/Arista Nashville)
There's no doubt that Carrie Underwood's third album, "Play On," is her best yet: Here, she seems finally to feel comfortable in her own skin. It's a wide-ranging album -- she's in love, out of love, lighthearted and playful. The bass-heavy and lyrically light first single, "Cowboy Casanova" (which Underwood co-wrote), makes for fine radio candy, but it's not the type of song that defines the album. The socially conscious anthem "Change" and the spiritual-sounding "Temporary Home" (another Underwood co-write) provide the meat and potatoes that make the syrupy-sweet dessert offerings more palatable. "What Can I Say" (featuring Sons of Sylvia) is a soaring lament of love lost, and "Someday When I Stop Loving You" is a well-written look at a life that's going downhill. Vince Gill's high harmony on "Look at Me" helps elevate a simple song to a potential country classic.
ARTIST: SAY ANYTHING
ALBUM: SAY ANYTHING (RCA Records)
Pop-punk band Say Anything's new self-titled album reflects the changing life of frontman Max Bemis -- he is now married (wife Sherri DuPree guests on the songs "She Won't Follow You" and "Cemetery"), has converted to Christianity (referenced in the upbeat single "Hate Everyone") and hasn't suffered the bipolar relapses that have derailed tours. Life has settled down for Bemis, but it doesn't show on the album. Taking a cue from painter Jackson Pollock, the artist splatters pieces of his influences and experiences across an audio canvas for listeners to interpret. "Do Better" leans on strings and electronics to create a musical takeover (Bemis sings, "We could do better/We could be the greatest band in the world"), while "Less Cute" features horns during the verse, leading into a rocking chorus. The chaos is nothing new for Say Anything, but the band's newest release is tightly executed and gives fans a deeper look into Bemis' clever mind.
ALBUM: FANTASIA (Fonovisa Records)
Young crooner Ivan's "Fantasia" is a throwback to '70s and '80s grupero, a Mexican genre that spawned some of Latin music's most enduring acts and classic songs. Grupero straddles pop and regional Mexican, offering hopelessly romantic ballads and midtempo cumbias. Production maestro Homero Patron, who is a veteran of the genre, impeccably re-creates the retro sounds on "Fantasia," a covers album by the runner-up of reality competition "Objetivo Fama." While Ivan has real vocal chops, it's unclear whether music fans his age will embrace grupero redux; less sappy song choices might have presented him better to younger listeners. A Spanish-language version of the '60s oldie "Angel of the Morning" is a particularly fun exception.
ALBUM: BLEACH (20TH-ANNIVERSARY DELUXE EDITION) (Sub Pop Records)
"This is off our first record, most people don't own it," Kurt Cobain whispered before strumming the opening chords of "About a Girl" during Nirvana's 1993 "MTV Unplugged" performance. As Cobain had guessed, most audience members probably weren't aware that the solemn track was from the band's 1989 debut, "Bleach." Unlike Nirvana's more polished, alternative-leaning breakthrough, 1991's "Nevermind," the sludgy backwoods material on "Bleach" reveals the humble beginnings of a band that would lead a new musical movement and earn itself a place in rock 'n' roll history. Twenty years after its original release on Sub Pop, "Bleach" is freshened up with remastered versions of unusually heavy songs like the haunting "Negative Creep," where Cobain howls about alienation and being stoned, and the pounding, eerie "Floyd the Barber," whose main subject is a man being tortured by characters from "The Andy Griffith Show." The set also includes a feedback-heavy live set from a 1990 performance at the Pine Street Theater in Portland, Oregon, where Nirvana tightly crushes through songs from "Bleach" and early rarities like "Spank Thru" and "Sappy."
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