What's the big theme in the new CD pile today? Women, reinventing themselves.
JEWEL SHOWS NEW FACETS: She made her mark as a sensitive singer-songwriter, till fans of that genre moved on to newer, brassier girls on the block. So Jewel has reinvented herself as a down-home, no-nonsense country singer.
On "Perfectly Clear" (The Valory Music Co, B+) this now Nashville-based Dixie chick puts on a pretty convincing Southern accent and covers all the twangy bases, from the banjo-flavored, love-yourself anthem "Stronger Woman" to the dangerous-liaison-themed, "Til It Feels Like Cheating" and the rueful, torchy, Patsy Cline-ish "Anyone But You," flavored with pedal steel and fiddle.
Truth is, I never thought Jewel was that distinctive of a folk composer, but in the less-demanding country arena, her material seems top tier.
THE BELLE RINGS ON SUNDAY: Remember Regina Belle, a major pop and R&B balladeer from the 1980s and '90s? Like Patti, Gladys and Anita, Belle was dropped from her record label.
Now Belle has been reborn as a grittier gospel talent with "Love Forever Shines" (Pendulum, B).
Belle's been woodshedding for this move as minister of music at New Shield of Faith Ministries in Atlanta, where her husband, John S. Battle III, is senior pastor.
Some of the songs have a traditional, church-choir feel, verging on a cappella, while others, like "Almost Slipped" and "Good to Be Loved," follow the bright, pumped-up, contemporary Christian approach - as love songs to Him instead of him.
CYNDI-RELLAS: Remember when Cyndi Lauper was that other flouncy female pop-rocker, chasing Madonna up and down the record charts? Now, Madonna is courting the dance crowd (again) with "Hard Candy," and Lauper, ironically, is also aiming for the same constituency with "Bring You to the Brink" (Epic, B).
Lauper's change of pace (from her recent bout as a standards singer) seems more revolutionary. She's really pumping up the BPM (beats per minute) on techy tracks like "Into the Nightlife" and my special fave, "Same Ol' F***ing Story," which, unfortunately, you won't be hearing on broadcast radio.
The stuff should go over swell, though, on Lauper's "True Colors" tour, also featuring the delirious, dance-popping B-52s and other GLBT-friendly acts, landing at the Borgata Events Center in Atlantic City on June 13.
Another pop chanteuse who's quit the cabaret, Judith Owen keeps changing her musical clothes on "Mopping Up" (Courgette, B).
While still arty and ambitious, this time the affair variously connects to the sonic worlds of Kate Bush, Enya and Tori Amos.
CHEERING UP: Aimee Mann writes songs about loss, disappointment and depression and sings them in a distinctively bruised, woe-is-me tone.
Even her recent Christmas album was a bummer.
Mann is still laying out bleak stuff on "@#%&*! Smilers" (Super Ego Records, B+). However, this time the tunes are variously and interestingly arranged, sometimes even up-tempo, so the set doesn't come out seeming monochromatic.
Kudos to producer Paul Brown and engineer Ryan Freeland for finally making Mann's music as interesting as her state of mind.
Eliza Gilkyson can't entirely abandon her politicized, finger-pointing nature. But on "Beautiful World" (Red House Records, A-), she's moving to the mop-up stage with double-edged songs like "The Party's Over" and the deliciously breezy yet sarcastic country torcher, "Unsustainable."
SMOKIN' STUFF: British funksters The Herbaliser evoke the glorious R&B revue and psychedelic soul bands of the past on "Same as It Never Was" (K7, B). They also throw in some twists - Middle Eastern sonic flavors plus some rap and turntablism - to make the sound their own.
If you're into country bands like Rascal Flatts and Alabama, you ought to check out the Band of Heathens (BOH, A-). This country-rock band (produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard) seems way more organic and artfully satisfying.
WORLD OF MUSIC: There's some great new music on the global front. Senegal's virtuoso Orchestra Baobab really won my heart with the subtle vocal harmonies, polyrhythmic beats, deliciously tart guitar licks and soaring, sax-driven jams all over "Made In Dakar" (World Circuit, A).
There's plenty of old-world charm in the Yiddish- and English-language fare of "The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People" (Shout! Factory, B).
Contributors to this all-original project range from Manhattan Transfer to Barbra Streisand, with stops along the way for Neil Sedaka, Dave Koz, Lainie Kazan, Herb Alpert, Theodore Bikel and Marvin Hamlisch.
And what really kills are the Catskill-styled comedy bits with Rob Schneider, Jason Alexander, Adam Sandler and especially Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Yeah, the pooch is Jewish, too.
The highly caffeinated "Cafe Cubano" collection (Putumayo, B) goes well with you know what.
ENGINEERING FEATS: Golden-age jazz piano stylist Art Tatum lives again on "Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine" (Sony/BMG, A-). This new CD/SACD recording utilized the Zenph Re-Performance process to digitally encode old Tatum performances, then play 'em back on a new reproducing piano recorded with state of the art equipment.
An audience was invited to listen and applaud, making it feel like a concert.
The neo-prog-rock band Porcupine Tree prides itself on sophisticated engineering, putting out albums in surround sound. So no surprise, Porcupine spin-off No-Man does the same with their atmospheric new set of moody singer-songwriter fare, "Schoolyard Ghosts" (Kscope, B). The package holds two discs, a two-channel CD and a multichannel DVD audio version that really sweeps you off your feet. *