A guilty pleasure. That's the historic shakedown on Hall & Oates. I'm here to say I ain't feeling guilty. The two Philly area buds concocted an often sublime meeting of folk, soul, pop and rock that was long on hooks, rife with terrific singing and a little short on message. They excelled more at making hit singles than cohesive albums, which is why this latest (among many) retrospectives concentrates on chart-toppers. Entire albums (anyone remember 1979's X-Static?) go unrepresented in this 17-song compendium.The set kicks in after the tandem left Atlantic for RCA, which means that material from the fabulous Abandoned Luncheonette is sadly missing. You know the tunes here: "Sara Smile," "Rich Girl," "You Make My Dreams," "One on One," "Maneater" and such. They hold up, folks. I dare say that they're more durable and timeless than, for instance, Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (OK, I'm going into hiding now.) The compilers' major miscue was including two songs -- "She's Gone" and "Kiss on My List" -- from a lousy live set, recorded in "82 and released last year.
An extra dimension not often heard on these types of packages is the addition of three new studio songs, astutely grouped at the end. They're solid tunes in the blue-eyed soul tradition that sit nicely on the ears. They are not, however, likely to build on the formidable Hall & Oates legacy. -- Eric Snider
Junior Kimbrough -- You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum)
For once, the legend "essential" fits, unlike all those "essential" Belly or Roxette compilations. Kimbrough, who played some 50 years before cutting a record, is, if you'll pardon the woeful attempts at trying to classify his sound, the smell of a room after sex, the electricity of a coming thunderstorm, and the hypnotism of a good afternoon drunk in the sunlight. Simply put, the music pretty much defies description. Most songs are based on a John Lee Hooker-style drone, except that (looking around to make sure lightning isn't set to strike me) Kimbrough's playing is still farmhand-strong at the time of these recordings (Kimbrough died at age 68 in 1998), with no Bonnie Raitts or hotshot house bands to back him up. Junior, Mississippi-bred, doesn't so much play big chordal workouts as he does variations on a theme, all with a guitar tone that sooths and titillates at the same time (I'm not kidding -- you'll be feeling like an alley cat within four songs). Liner notes for the disc are by music writer Anthony DeCurtis (also the executive producer of the record), writing as a tribute to his good friend, the deceased jazz/roots scribe Robert Palmer, who helped "discover" Kimbrough. DeCurtis' tribute is a fine introduction to Kimbrough, a thousand words that form a good picture for the uninitiated. As I (and likely you, dear reader) can attest, it's not an easy job. -- Timothy C. Davis
Allison Moorer -- Miss Fortune (Universal South)
It ain't easy being cool. Nashville songstress Allison Moorer made a couple of stabs at breaking into mainstream country with two groundbreaking albums while on MCA Records, but somebody forgot to tell her that there's a mold she needed to fit into. Ever the rebel, Moorer (who played the Neighborhood Theatre a couple weeks ago) makes music that is too scary for country radio -- tempered with the harsh lyrical honesty of life's trials, steeped with the pure power of her emotional delivery and wrapped in a plethora of styles that shirk convention. Her first release on the (sort of) upstart label Universal South, Moorer's new release is a musical tour of the South, with a dose of Memphis soul, one foot on the rise of the Smoky Mountains and a little Nashvegas twang thrown in. Oh, and she rocks out too.Once again, Moorer wrote or co-wrote every tune -- except for husband Doyle "Butch" Primm's solo contribution, "Mark My Word," a tender but ominous admonishment concerning a potentially doomed love affair. From the hypnotic romanticism of "Tumbling Down" to the gothic hillbilly sound of "Dying Breed," Moorer and her band are all over the place, with her honeydew voice right out front for the world to hear. Whether it's the retro-pop feel of "Steal the Sun" or the full-tilt wailing of "Going Down" (which could send Tina Turner back to Nutbush), Moorer is clearly the star here. -- James Kelly
Queens of the Stone Age -- Songs For The Deaf (Interscope)
Queens of the Stone Age, otherwise known as QOTSA (I just call "em Quot-sah), have risen to a strange strata in the music world. Critics love them, alt.snobs such as pitchforkmedia.com and others laud them for their Nirvana-esque music purity whilst swimming in a sea of intoxicants and other uglies, and MTV's even jumping on the bandwagon (probably doesn't hurt that Dave Grohl finally returns to the drums on most of this long-awaited record, either). Even metalheads like them, even thought they have short hair and don't write about wizards (singer- guitarist Josh Homme has said the band included Queens in its name to scare away potential mook fans, much like Cobain used to don the odd dress from time to time). Songs For The Deaf is what the band calls a "soft concept" album, explaining that the music, featuring some three singers, is too varied to not tie together in some way. In this case, it's the banality of radio that inspires the title of the record and the faux radio DJ transmissions throughout the album (though it should be noted the band does include a super-low-frequency song, especially for the "actual" deaf). Longtime fans should be pleased -- there's plenty of desert-friendly heavy-psych breakdowns, and the usual peppering of screamers courtesy of bass player Nick Oliveri ("Millionaire" and the for-those-about-to-rock "Six Shooter"). Does it pack the punch of Rated R? Not as a whole, which isn't to say it rocks any less. The band's just growing up. To the Bronze Age, perhaps. -- Timothy C. Davis
Red Hot Chili Peppers -- By The Way (Warner Bros.)
Talk about your major releases dropped softly into the marketplace. Perhaps it's due to the fact that Warner Bros. didn't know what the hell to do with the album, and feared the kiddies wouldn't be into the dusky three-part harmonies and 80s synths. Perhaps it's the trippy cover art and "dust bowl children" photography of platemaster Julian Schnabel. No matter the reason, consider it a crime against radio pop. One might argue that By The Way, when paired with the Peppers' last, Californication, represents a band growing into themselves much better than, say, a more indie-respected band like R.E.M on their last two albums. You might say, "Well, Tim, it's not all that hard to grow when artistic expression for the band used to include placing socks on their penises." And you'd be right. But also consider it was over 10 years ago that the band began breaking out of the funk-rock pack with songs like "Breaking The Girl" and "Under The Bridge." That the funkiest song here, "By The Way," is the first track (and first single) is no accident -- Flea still needs to afford his Kundalini yoga and Chad Smith his hats, after all. Still, the best tracks here ("Dosed," "Midnight" and "Warm Tape") feature drum machines, a string section and Depeche Mode-like keyboard flourishes, respectively. In fact, it's a tribute to the band and longtime producer Rick Rubin that said songs now sound more natural and organic than the throwback sock rock excursions most people know them for in the first place. -- Timothy C. Davis
Twinemen -- Twinemen (Hi-N-Dry)
Pulling together the remaining loose threads of Boston cult band Morphine, Twinemen are saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Billy Conway, along with singer Laurie Sargent (also a part of the short-lived Orchestra Morphine collective). Colley, Conway and Sargent never pull their parts together too tightly, however. There's plenty of tension between the intertwining of brooding, bluesy skronk, stomp and vocals. But one of the most appealing aspects of Twinemen is that they're not all balled-up in a single formula, closed to experimentation. Twinemen -- named after a cartoon created by Morphine's deceased singer/ bassist Mark Sandman -- is like a baptism in a murky river, the sonic waters threatening to pull you under as they wash over you. It's a river covered in a warm fog, echoing with eerie avant additions like instrumentations on old vinyl.
While the ghost of Sandman is certainly tangible, Twinemen is more than a psychedelic seance looking to the past. With Sandman, Morphine told mesmerizing tales. With Sargent, Twinemen beguile equally, if not more, by creeping less sinisterly, more seductively. They wind a chilling circular weave of red-eye rhythms easy to find yourself wrapped up in. -- Tony Ware