Deep Natural (Mighty Sound).
Remember Michelle's near-legendary (it was recorded on a Walkman, fer crying out loud) Texas Campfire Tapes? Her underrated Short Sharp Shocked? Consider Deep Natural the opposite of the last record: long (two discs), soft (relaxed dub ambience), and subdued (she's not saving the world on every song). She bridges the gap between the Indigo Girls and Sarah McLachlans of the world and the harder-edged she-devilry of a PJ Harvey. In a sentence, imagine Sinead O' Connor if she grew up in Texas and listened to Doug Sahm. Much like the Indigos, she hasn't so much softened her stance as she's sweetened the pill that encapsulates it: the excellent country-dub backing arrangements (plus horns and classical guitar) almost warrant a purchase by themselves. -- Tim C. Davis
Hank Williams III
Lovesick, Broke & Driftin' (Curb).
The latest from hellbilly renegade Hank Williams III is the perfect soundtrack to get drunk by. Lovesick, Broke & Driftin' is a classic boozin' (and druggin' if you count the cannabis references) album on par with the best from Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe and George Jones.
For his 1999 debut, Hank III was under close watch by his label. They only allowed him to record four of his own songs (the album's highlights), and forbade him from taking the production reigns. For his '02 effort, Hank III has recorded all his own material save for an interesting cover of Springsteen's "Atlantic City" tacked on at the end. The young rebel produced the disc as well. Hank III's lonesome coyote yelp has never sounded finer. Whether ranting about the music industry in the revved up "Trashville," or lamenting lost love in "5 Shots of Whiskey," the album is a honkytonk gem throughout.
In the late 1960s, Gram Parsons realized a dream of playing country music with rock & roll attitude. Following in Parsons' footsteps, Hank III blends the ethics of punk rock (his first musical love) with the heart-wrenching sincerity of hardcore country to explore the darker elements of life -- depression, loneliness, anger -- that fuel both genres. In doing so, the youngest Hank is on a path to offer Nashville its biggest kick in the pants since well, since his womanizing, whiskey-guzzling grandfather wreaked havoc on Music Row some 50 years ago. -- Wade Tatangelo
On the Run: Live at the Velvet Lounge (Delmark).
He's one of the linchpins of Chicago's storied avant-garde jazz scene. It wasn't that long ago that Anderson tended bar as well as gigged at the Velvet Lounge -- and that was about the extent of his performing. He's undergone a career resurgence in the last half-decade or so. These two discs offer vibrant looks at a brilliant, often unheralded player, one who managed to temper the chaos of free-jazz with groove and lyricism. The Velvet Lounge disc, recorded in 2000, finds Anderson volleying with drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Tatsu Aoki in a freewheeling, open-ended set. The rhythm is pliant, sliding from free time to frenetic bop to spaced-out sections. Anderson's robust horn work mines a wealth of melodic invention. -- Eric Snider
Legends of Rodeo
A Thousand Friday Nights (Bieler Bros.).
Part of the same scene that has given the world bands like Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory, Legends of Rodeo aren't really emo in any strict sense of the word, despite their current tour with Dashboard. Perhaps alt.emo then, as the band does bands like Slobberbone one better, mixing a little Mott the Hoople and Big Star into a straight-ahead Tom Petty-circa-Damn the Torpedoes shuffle. While A Thousand Friday Nights contains few instant classics, most songs have a singalong quality (read: good emo) without being all about how "that damn bitch dumped me but I'll be OK as long as I have my record collection" (bad emo). All in their early 20s, Legends of Rodeo gives you the sense they might still be cranking out the ditties 10 years from now, long after all the whiners have gotten married and the tattoos have started to fade. -- Tim C. Davis
Misha Mengelberg Quartet
Four In One (Songlines)
Mengelberg is the elder statesman of Dutch free jazz, a one-time collaborator with Eric Dolphy who has been carving out a richly creative catalog for years. This disc features a powerhouse quartet with Mengelberg's longtime drummer Han Bennink, bassist Brad Jones, and trumpet wizard Dave Douglas. The songlist features many Mengelberg standards (like the delightful "Hypochristmutreefuzz") and a few tunes by Thelonious Monk. On this loose, one-take recording that evolved after a few live dates, the quartet sizzles with energy and wit as Mengelberg's oddly rhythmic playing tips its hat to Monk, while the ever-facile Douglas dazzles on each cut. For a Mengelberg set, the disc is relatively accessible, yet still driven by the fierce individualism that's made this Dutch genius a jazz legend. -- Gene Hyde
Bats & Mice
Believe It Mammals (Lovitt).
There's something about Richmond, VA that just seems to breed bands that don't sound like anybody else. Bats & Mice is the latest in a distinguished line of forward-thinking, punk-reared bands (the group contains alumni from Sleepytime Trio, Four Hundred Years, Rah Bras, Milemarker and others), and certainly offers something different. Call it after-hours indie-rock -- lushly layered vocals, abstract, almost jazzy passages and a talent for subdued dynamics lend Believe It Mammals a cumulous, after-the-climax feel. All potential rough edges have been softened, bathed in fuzzy tones, vague keyboard lines and an intriguing multi-singer game plan. Even when it gets loud, it never really gets, you know, loud. -- Scott Harrell
Mindful (Sunny Sky)
Icelandic pianist Gunnlaugs has been honing her chops in the US for a decade. This disc of original material showcases her mastery of composition as well as her highly lyrical playing, at times recalling Keith Jarrett's work with his standards trio. Gunnlaugs fronts a tight, talented quartet, pushed by drummer Scott McLemore's expressive trap work and Drew Gress's brilliant basswork. Saxophonist Tony Malaby rounds out the ensemble with fiery, impassioned playing. Mindful is a thoughtful, exciting ensemble disc, fronted by an excellent young pianist and composer. -- Gene Hyde
Kamaal the Abstract (Arista).
For a guy with a squirrelly rap voice, virtually no singing chops and limited rhyme skills, Q-Tip has delivered a pretty seductive disc. He consistently flouts hip-hop convention by writing almost haiku-like lyrics and constructing songs that bank on heavily repeated choruses and extensive solos. Is it Q-Tip's jazz record? No, although long organ, keyboard, piano and horn improvs certainly add that dimension. Is it Q-Tip's nu-soul entry? Not really, although the flowing grooves and expert musicianship (by his band, Rose) show a kinship to that style. In the end, this is Q-Tip striving to establish a sound of his own, and, although still nascent in its development, Kamaal the Abstract is an engaging step in the right direction. -- Eric Snider
Shake Your Money Maker: The Best of the Fire Sessions (Buddha).
Elmore James holds a special place in the annals of rock & roll history, serving (in part) as the electric bridge between the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and the blues-based rock of the Yardbirds and Rolling Stones. James' innovative renditions of "Dust My Broom" and "Standing at the Crossroads," as well as his own self-penned classic, "Shake Your Moneymaker," are monumental achievements. The Best of Fire Sessions includes versions of James' above-mentioned classics, plus 13 other choice tracks cut during his tenure at Fire Records. Whether backed by his own Mississippi band or veteran New York studio musicians, Elmore's aching, tormented growl and sizzling slide guitar shine with equal veracity on every song. -- Wade Tatangelo
In Search Of... (Virgin)
Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have, as the producing duo The Neptunes, worked on just about everyone in music's album over the last few years: Limp Bizkit, Britney, and most everyone else who's recently gone platinum except for the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (although that collaboration could be interesting: Ralph Stanley's "O Death" becomes "O Def," etc.).
In Search Of... was originally released last year to little fanfare. The record has been retooled and revamped, with live instrumentation added to the 'Tunes own, inimitable (except by themselves, on nearly every song) beats. Standouts are everywhere, including the bad-ass truck driving anthem "Provider," and the flat-out nasty "Lapdance." (Actually, the lyrics are pretty clean -- the music's nasty.)
Mind you, everyone's bitching that the original was better without the live drummer and the fuzzed-out guitar riffs. Of course. Has any album ever been as good as the unfettered original to the hipster music press? Then again, have the masses ever listened to the hipster music press? Of course not. In this case, that's a good thing. -- Tim C. Davis
Cat 'n' Mouse (ECM)
Think string trio with drums here, as guitarist Abercrombie teams with violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Marc Johnson for an improvisational jazz picking party, with Joey Baron's drums adding a gentle anchor. The title hints at the disc's hide & seek, improvise-and-response instrumental interplay as these masters exchange ideas with strings, fingers, and bow. Sometimes soft and contemplative, sometimes driven by a subtle yet intense energy, it's a joy to listen to these tunes deliberately evolve. -- Gene Hyde