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Pop Let's be clear: Al Green is never again scaling the supersexy, ultra-vulnerable Memphis-soul heights he reached under the aegis of Willie Mitchell on Hi Records in the early 1970s. But Lay It Down, produced by Philadelphia soulmeisters James Poyser an


Lay It Down

(EMI ***)

Let's be clear: Al Green is never again scaling the supersexy, ultra-vulnerable Memphis-soul heights he reached under the aegis of Willie Mitchell on Hi Records in the early 1970s. But

Lay It Down

, produced by Philadelphia soulmeisters James Poyser and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, is as close as Green has gotten to that high-altitude soul Valhalla in decades. Unlike his overrated reunions with Hi producer Willie Mitchell on

I Can't Stop

(2003) and

Everything's OK


Lay It Down

combines plush, cushioned R&B grooves with deeply relaxed love songs that live and breathe. Green's upper range is still in finely expressive condition, and more important, the easily distracted soul man sounds focused on coaxing convincingly real emotional content out of songs like "Too Much" and "All I Need." The guest appearances, by Corinne Bailey Rae, Anthony Hamilton, and John Legend, plus the Dap-Kings Horns, are all sharp and to the point, and ably assist Green in his effort to reveal the old-school tricks he's still got up his sleeve.

- Dan DeLuca

II Trill

(*** Rap-A-Lot)

Perseverance, thy name is Bun B. But when friend and musical partner Pimp C was discovered dead last December from a codeine overdose, you wondered how much more the man could take.

That recent somberness shows up on "Angel in the Sky," one of the best tracks on

II Trill,

Bun's second solo album. Another tribute, "Pop It 4 Pimp," isn't nearly as bittersweet but is nearly as good. And it illustrates the divide Bun so masterfully walks across: He's as good at making heartfelt tribute tracks as he is at making dirty club tracks. (He's also good at making friends - other standouts include the woozy posse cut "You're Everything," the Lil Wayne back-and-forth "Damn, I'm Cold" and the Young Buck-assisted "If I Die II Night.")


II Trill

reveals a new talent - Bun B as judge and jury. Having embraced his role as rap's elder statesman with humility and grace, Bun lets loose on "Get Cha Issue," mowing through crooked preachers, crooked police and crooked politicians. It's the clear highlight, and nothing else on the album comes close in terms of social commentary. But nothing else needs to. Bun's good at moving on.

- Michael Pollock

Brooklyn's Don Diva

(Black Rose/Koch **1/2)

Foxy Brown, now that you're out of jail and your hearing problems are on the mend, what are you gonna do? Make a fine comeback, from the sound of this first CD in seven years.

It's not amazing; not as curt and cutting as when Foxy was Jay Z's protegee and they recorded "I'll Be" together or as blunt and stunning as 2005's "Come Fly with Me."

Foxy was renowned for her swaggering flow and a lyrical take on her swanky wardrobe, her punching prowess, and her sexual wiles.



's production occasionally feels rushed, generic - beneath a vixen vet of Foxy's status. Brown's lyrics about Louis Vuitton and Boucheron seem nothing more than product placement.

But the femme MC leads the way when it comes to facing off against reggae toasters like Movado, Morgan Heritage and Lady Saw. And her lyrics to tracks like "Too Real" allow Foxy to ruminate on the hard-luck life she's lived of late. "Look beyond my fur coats and Chanel purses/Put aside the Christian Dior/Look inside my soul/See I'm just a little insecure," goes a verse from "Star Cry."

It's a welcome return. She's just got to work harder.

- A.D. Amorosi

Long Gone and Nearly There

(Transit of Venus ***1/2)

Jim Spellman likes his allusions: his former band, the charming Velocity Girl, took its name from an early Primal Scream song. "Julie Ocean" was a great new-wave pop single from Ireland's Undertones, which tips to one of the musical roots of this DC band.

Released on local label Transit of Venus,

Long Gone and Nearly There

is a terse (10 songs in 25 minutes) blast of nostalgia for the jangly, melodic guitar pop of the Eighties, from early decade new wave to mid-decade Brit Pop to later lo-fi underground America, from those Undertones to the Wedding Present to Guided by Voices.

Although it might help, one doesn't have to be history-minded to love the ecstatic harmonies of "#1 Song," the power-pop hooks of "Here Comes Danny," and the zippy guitar riffs of "At the Appointed Hour."

- Steve Klinge


Just Us Kids

(Lightning Rod ***1/2)

The son of Texas novelist Larry McMurtry, James McMurtry has long proven himself to be a keen-eyed heartland bard whose songs never offer up any easy romanticism. And the same goes for his delivery.

Just Us Kids

presents more of McMurtry's sharply sculpted tales of alienation and regret, restlessness and resignation, occasionally spiced with sardonic wit and framed with lean, muscular roots-rock (Ian McLagan, Jon Dee Graham, and C.C. Adcock are among the accompanists). As he has in the last few years, McMurtry also continues to broaden from the personal into the political, with the scathingly ironic "God Bless America" and an unsparing portrait of the soldier as pawn, "Cheney's Toy."

- Nick Cristiano

Let Life Flow

(Blind Pig ***)

The philosophical bent of the title song of Kenny Neal's new album reflects the tribulations the veteran bluesman has endured in recent years: the loss of a bandmate and three close family members, including his father, Louisiana blues great Raful Neal, and his own bout with hepatitis C. The horn-kissed soul number is ultimately uplifting, however, and so is the rest of

Let Life Flow.

The swamp-soaked "Louisiana Stew" salutes the Baton Rouge-bred Neal's bayou roots, but most of the album has a more contemporary blues/R&B feel that draws in part from the guitarist and harmonica player's experiences performing with Chicago legends Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Best of all is a churchy ballad that, like the title song, offers heartfelt life lessons from someone who seems qualified to give them: "You've Got to Hurt Before You Heal."

- N.C.


Present Tense

(EmArcy ***)

Reed man and flutist James Carter seems to carry a can of Red Bull in his horn. The guy can give a jolt to a tune.

This disc with producer Michael Cascuna finds Carter in modes where he's both high-energy and pushing the traditional harmonic envelope. The opening blues, "Rapid Shave," makes a danceable showcase for Carter's blowing skills, while "Bro. Dolphy" starts in far-out Eric Dolphy land before morphing into a sensual ditty and then closing with a thunderous climax.

Carter gets all pretty on Django Reinhardt's winsome "Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure." (His 2000 CD,

Chasin' the Gypsy/Layin' in the Cut

, was in part a tribute to Reinhardt.) And Carter goes Latin on "Sussa Nita" and a touch Brazilian on "Bossa J.C."

The set catches him flexing all kinds of soloing muscles. But the supporting cast is surprisingly unobtrusive. Trumpeter Dwight Adams, a fellow Detroiter, fails to make much of an impression beside the flamboyant leader, while pianist D. D. Jackson paws furiously at the piano on "Rapid Shave," leaving a less-than-tidy impression.

Carter often revels in the loud dynamics and jousting horns. And sometimes it works.

- Karl Stark

Through My Eyes

(Stiletto **1/2)

Singer Joanna Pascale gives a generally tasty reading of 10 standards. Pascale, who got a vocal degree from Temple University and now teaches there, is also a regular at Loews Hotel's Solefood restaurant in Philadelphia. (She has a gig on June 7 at the very cool Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.)

Pascale conveys a sultry intensity and some bluesy warmth on Ray Noble's "I Hadn't Anyone Till You." Sometimes, she's girlish and in a storytelling mode, as on Johnny Mercer and Gordon Jenkins' epic ditty, "P.S. I Love You."

Her quartet sounds cool and keen with pianist Andrew Adair, bassist Madison Rast, and drummer Dan Monaghan. Tim Warfield on reeds is an absolute magician, creating great backing for the singer.

- K.S.


Anima Eterna, Jos van Immerseel conducting.

(Zig Zag Territories, 6 CDs, ***1/2)

Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe conducting.

(PentaTone Classics, ***)

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Paavo Järvi conducting.

(RCA, ***1/2)

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer conducting.

(Channel Classics, ***1/2)

Beethoven symphony roundups are becoming a quarterly experience. Though parsing them can drive you to fine shades of differentiation, even the less successful discs are earnest efforts without a single redundant, me-too performance in the lot. The latest complete set is by the European Anima Eterna, which has gone so far as to record a historically informed


, and represents the vanguard in period performance of Beethoven. Wind instruments are all Viennese, and the notoriously fast metronome markings are played with so little sweat and so much electricity that they feel entirely natural.

As Jos van Immerseel outlined in a Gramophone magazine interview, this Beethoven has a minimum number of instruments to insure maximum range of color plus a strong chamber-music sense, the results being particularly exhilarating in the

Fourth, Sixth



symphonies. Nowhere is there the antiseptic dryness of John Eliot Gardiner's like-minded Beethoven cycle. Defeat comes, though, with the


. Vocal soloists aren't good and the group's sense of purpose comes unraveled.

Working with a similar set of data, Philippe Herreweghe offers Beethoven's




with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, imposing a classical-era objectivity that yields some unexplored intra-musical relationships, but with a chill.

From there, the Beethoven performances proceed toward the conventional, with Paavo Järvi's latest RCA installment with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen occupying a moderate view of the historically informed movement - and adding infectious fizz. Ivan Fischer conducts the modern-instrument Budapest Festival Orchestra in a stylish, comfortable, beautifully played and recorded


symphony. Do we need these extra pieces by Rossini, Weber and Wilms to realize just how fierce and serious Beethoven seemed in his own time? Maybe, but the adagio from the Weber concerto is, in any case, seriously nice to encounter.

- David Patrick Stearns


(ECM ***)

In the ECM tradition of poetically ambiguous packaging, this disc might seem to be yet another collection of 17th-century songs by John Dowland. Yet the so-called exquisitely sorrowful Englishman isn't heard here: The Dowland Project seems to be the name of the unconventional foursome that performs early-music arrangements with surprisingly lovely contributions from saxophonist John Surman.

The repertoire, collected under the title


, is mostly the group's own reimaginings of songs, chants and Mass movements by the likes of Orlando di Lasso and Josquin Desprez. It's all atmospheric and deeply felt, though Potter simply isn't an engaging enough vocalist to remain interesting over this 77-minute disc.

- D.P.S.