There's Foxy music, Diamonds in the rough, Classical John and more in the new releases display at music shops today.
STREET CHILD/WAR CHILD: Rap fans can travel a path of darkness or redemption this week.
Those craving that old boasting and posturing thang can get it on Foxy Brown's first disc in seven years, the often humdrum "Brooklyn's Don Diva" (Black Roses/Koch, B-). Almost as famous these days for her public displays of anger as for her music, Brown is newly out of jail and reclaiming her title as first lady of gangsta rap on this set bragging about her sexual addiction to drug dealers, her bravery at walking the streets and her mad skills at counter-attacking robbers. "I'm every black girl's dream," Supa-woman claims.
Looking for some freshness and real meaning in your hip hop? Check out Sudanese rapper/singer Emmanuel Jal, sharing his eye-opening experiences as a "Warchild" (Sonic 360, A-).
Torn from his mother and forced to take up arms in the African nation's civil war at age 7, Jal's survival and triumph today as a creative artist and moral/spiritual advocate - "turning lessons into blessings" - proves incredibly dramatic and instructive. Tunes like "Baakiwara" and "Skirt Too Short" add new flavors to the scene. And his protest lyrics are both colorfully phrased and important to hear.
BEST OF THE ROCK: Rhett Miller's back in the driver's seat of the Old 97's on "Blame It On Gravity" (New West, A-), the most energetic, hook-happy album of rootsy Americana rock I've heard this year.
The acoustic guitars and organ-fueled "My Two Feet" is a special fave, an anthem to the wobbly ride down the mountain of life when "sometimes you're seventeen and sometimes you're sixty five." But really, there's not a dud in the bunch.
Ben Gibbard went off to an isolated cabin in Big Sur to write the new Death Cab For Cutie album, "Narrow Stairs" (Atlantic, A-). Not too surprising, the experience pulled out a swath of songs that muse on being alone, or at least the odd-man-out.
In Gibbard fashion, the melancholy sweetness of the music often works at ironic odds with the disillusioned tone of the lyrics. Some ripe examples: the maturity-sucks "No Sunlight," the California-disaster-themed "Grapevine Fires" and the tale of a loner who trades a queen for a "New Twin Sized Bed."
GIRL POWER: Much homage has been paid lately to the spirit of Dusty Springfield, on discs from Shelby Lynne and Amy Winehouse, and in the recent news of a biopic to star Nicole Kidman as the British born, yet Memphis-soul-flavored singer.
New to the party and keeping up well is Welsh singer Duffy on "Rockferry" (Mercury/Rough Trade, B+). Cool groovin' yet sophisticated, with splashes of country and lush string charts, this is new but instantly classic music served up in honest, non-ironic fashion.
I really should have lumped the self-titled album by Robyn (Konichiwa/Interscope, B) with my review of Madonna's "Hard Candy" last week. This younger, blonde, one-name talent is similarly dedicated to electro-flavored dance pop. Plus she can rap with fair conviction.
IDOL GOSSIP: Too bad Jason Mraz already exists. But maybe last week's "American Idol" fourth-place cast-off, Jason Castro, could play him on TV. Mraz's light charmer of a set, "We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things" (Atlantic, B), floats by on a feathery bed of pop-rock flavors. He even tosses a reggae tune into the mix. Cutie Colbie Caillat joins on the sweetly harmonized and aptly named "Lucky."
Speaking of "A.I.," second-season runner-up Clay Aiken is back with "On My Way Home" (RCA, B-). The set plots the sort of earnest, polished course that this year's first- or second-place winner David Archuleta is likely to take.
Recent "A.I." mentor Neil Diamond is back in the running with his 29th (!) album, the surprisingly strong, non-schlocky "Home Before Dark" (Columbia, B+). Major props to producer Rick Rubin. He's done a Johnny Cash-like number on Diamond, stripping down the arrangements to the barest - sometimes just the artist's self-strummed acoustic guitar, plus piano.
It reminds us that Diamond is, at essence, a graceful, folk-rooted singer/songwriter with a special knack for uplifting bridges. His understated spiritual, "Pretty Amazing Grace," is the most amazing thing on the set, yet it hardly stands alone.
Another old-timer whose raspy, white-soul inspiration helped Taylor Hicks move into the winner's circle is back with a new set. We're talking Joe Cocker and his "Hymn For My Soul" (Concord, B). No surprise, the most memorable of his covers are again Beatles songs ("Beware of Darkness" and "Come Together").
INSTRUMENTAL FARE: The billing is slightly off on John Bayless' "Circle of Life: The Music of Elton John in the Style of Bach" (Angel, B). In truth, the classical pianist merges quotes from Bach with chunks of John done in baroque style, like "Tiny Dancer" mixed with a lift or two from "Brandenberg Concerto No. 3."
Others given the treatment include personal faves "Daniel" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which also tosses in a line from "The Wizard of Oz."
Likewise hoping for a wider audience is Jon Lord's latest symphonic opus, "Boom of the Tinkling Strings" (EMI, B-), though the former Deep Purple man paddles through turgid waters for a long time before things start tinkling.
On "Season of Change" (Verve, A-) drummer Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band serve up the sort of lyrical, chromatic, crossover jazz that fans of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell relish. That goes double for devotees of Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett.
Avant guitar master Marc Ribot is newly represented with a fascinating DVD biography by Anais Prosaic, "La Corde Perdue/The Lost String" (Tour Publics, A-), and another way-out-there, oft-squawking fusion set, "Ceramic Dog" (Pi Recordings, B-) that aims (like the lead tune suggests) to "Break on Through (To the Other Side.)"