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Billboard CD reviews: Clay Aiken, Juan Gabriel

NEW YORK (Billboard) - After a series of so-so soft-rock efforts, Season 2 “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken looks back to the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s on “Tried & True,” a big-band-style collaboration with German producer Alex Christensen, whose resume includes work with Paul Anka, Sarah Brightman and Right Said Fred. Given the cabaret-ready character of Aiken’s voice, the change in direction suits the singer. Where he used to sound like an oldster attempting to crash the top 40, here Aiken’s vocals exude a relaxed vibe that seemingly reflects his recent stint on Broadway in “Spamalot!” That even goes for a surprisingly authoritative version of “Mack the Knife,” where Aiken summons a swagger he never previously displayed. Other songs include “Moon River” (with a tasty acoustic-guitar solo by Vince Gill), a jazzy take on Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” and “Unchained Melody,” which gets the full Hollywood-orchestra treatment.


ALBUM: JUAN GABRIEL (Fonovisa Records)

Renowned Mexican songsmith Juan Gabriel plays it safe, if beautifully, on his first album in seven years. His self-titled mariachi set -- which includes touches of accordion-driven norteno and grupero -- contains songs Gabriel has recorded for the first time (having written them long ago for other singers who made them famous) as well as new tracks he wrote for this album. In addition to first single “¿Por Que Me Haces Llorar?,” a ‘50s-style ballad in a mariachi arrangement, gems include the rollicking, string-laden “El Consentido,” which evokes the ensemble of folkloric dancers in flowing dresses that Gabriel tours with. That artist’s salt-of-the-earth delivery well suits the material, which eschews the usual cowboy legends in favor of first-person tales of heartbreak. Anyone who’s seen Gabriel perform live recently will hear a marked difference between his raspy voice and the milky-smooth vocal production on the album.


ALBUM: TOGETHER (Matador Records)

Canadian indie rock titans the New Pornographers have always managed to stand out among their contemporaries up north. The band’s fifth album, “Together,” is no different. The fresher feel on the Vancouver group’s new set could be attributed in part to frontman Carl Newman’s openness to collaborating with his peers. Brooklyn-based artist Annie Clark (better known as St. Vincent) lends guitar to the downtempo “My Shepherd,” on which the Pornographers’ Neko Case straightforwardly admits, “If I’m honest, you come to mind/But baby I’m not.” Okkervil River’s Will Sheff sings on the poppy opener, “Moves,” and the Dap-Kings (the backing band for soul singer Sharon Jones) sprinkle a touch of funk throughout “Together,” most notably on “Daughters of Sorrow.” But the raucous guitars and thundering drums of lead single “Your Hands (Together)” display the New Pornographers’ ability to do just fine on their own.


ALBUM: THE ORACLE (Universal Republic)

A pause has certainly refreshed the members of Godsmack, who have been on a recording hiatus since 2006’s adventurous “IV.” But the New England headbangers have returned with a sinewy, muscular set that harks back to their 1998 debut. Despite its back-cover pronouncement that “the old me is dead and gone,” “The Oracle” boasts a pleasingly vintage sound that opens with the punchy rhythm and grooving riffs of the song “Cryin’ Like a Bitch” and works through the taut arrangements of tracks like “War and Peace,” “Good Day to Die” and the galloping “Forever Shamed.” And with a title like “Love*Hate*Sex*Pain,” it’s evident that frontman Sully Erna remains all about the angst. Those seeking a change-up can check out “Devil’s Swing,” three and a half minutes of metallic funk with a harmonica break, while the album-closing title track is an epic instrumental with a cinematic soundscape. “The Oracle” is certainly familiar, but it still sounds fresh enough and well worth the wait for fans who prefer their Godsmack served up straight.


ALBUM: DIAMOND EYES (Reprise/Warner Bros. Records)

Through the decades, music fans have witnessed how the loss of a key band member can lead to a group’s demise. The Deftones have proved just the opposite. After a 2008 car accident that left bassist Chi Cheng with a debilitating brain injury, the Sacramento, Calif., hard rock act recruited bassist Sergio Vega and wrote its sixth studio album, “Diamond Eyes.” The set is full of the Deftones’ usual energy and showcases singer Chino Moreno’s knack for alternating between screams and sweet vocal delivery over heavy, complex guitar work. Accompanied by laid-back riffs and electronic loops on the song “Beauty School,” he croons, “I see your face and I know I’m alive.” The less delicate track “Rocket Skates” features aggressive, distorted guitars that highlight Moreno’s repeated screams of “guns, razors, knives.” The set’s title track -- which includes the line “Time will see us realign” -- reminds fans that the Deftones definitely miss Cheng, but the group is still dedicated to rocking out until his hoped-for return.



With the help of heavyweight producer Rick Rubin, Gogol Bordello’s major-label debut, “Trans-Continental Hustle,” maintains the band’s ethno-clash dance party reputation, but with less punk attitude and a more mainstream songwriting approach. Wild, passionate opener “Pala Tute” -- a gypsy folk tune translated into English -- features galloping acoustic guitars among fiery accordion and fiddle runs, but displays a controlled energy that differs from the group’s usual unbridled madness. The album takes a breather on “Sun Is on My Side,” where frontman Eugene Hutz’s coarse vocals are countered by graceful acoustic guitar and sighing accordion. “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” is reminiscent of Gogol Bordello’s familiar punk edge, but contains a lighter acoustic sound that replaces the distortion found on the band’s 2007 album, “Super Taranta!” Even so, the song rages with slamming drums, thrashing guitars and fiddle riffs worthy of Slayer. But Rubin ensures that the sounds blend well in a tight arrangement.



Brooklyn-based band the Hold Steady explores what happens when the party ends on fifth album “Heaven Is Whenever.” The departure earlier this year of keyboardist Franz Nicolay means less Springsteen-like keyboard embellishments, but the group’s Everyman stature remains intact thanks to vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn’s straightforward lyricism and lead guitarist Tad Kubler’s signature swells. Mellow tunes like “The Sweet Part of the City” and “We Can Get Together” bring out Finn’s inner Counting Crows. Themes of nostalgia and introspection are more aggressively covered in sing-alongs like “Rock Problems” and “The Weekenders.” A sweltering guitar solo, throbbing bass line and steady kick drum on the latter track set up Finn’s narration of an attempt at rekindled passion. Despite the loss of Nicolay, the rock ‘n’ roll band soldiers on. Finn puts it best on album closer “A Slight Discomfort”: “We’ve seen scattered action and we mostly came out unscathed.”



From the buoyant opener, “This Life,” to the brief but eloquent closer, “This So Called Love,” MercyMe’s sixth studio album, “The Generous Mr. Lovewell,” is a beautifully executed set that celebrates how the power of love can change the world. Mr. Lovewell is a fictitious character (inspired by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album) who “wakes up every day the same/Believing he’s gonna make a change/Never wonders if but when.” Musically, the title track is a breezy Fab Four-esque number, and it anchors the album’s central theme of making a difference through acts of love and kindness. The edgy “Move” acknowledges life’s obstacles but looks ahead to brighter days. The anthemic lead single, “All of Creation,” is a hit on Christian radio, where MercyMe has been spearheading promotions that reward listeners who demonstrate the album’s theme. Music with a message has never sounded lovelier.