New gems from Dave Matthews Band and Dirty Projectors and a classic from Ray Charles top the new releases list.

DMB On Top: "If this is the last album I make, I hope it's the only album people listen to," shares Dave Matthews in the DVD documentary packed with the deluxe edition of "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King" (RCA).

I pass that message along because, frankly, I agree with it. This set, years in the making and filled with special emotional gravitas, really jumped out and grabbed me.

It opens and closes with snippets of lyrical saxophone from DMB's LeRoi Moore, who passed away last August. Gulp. Also inspiring the guys - most obviously on the "water's rising"-themed "Alligator Pie" - parts were written and recorded in New Orleans, a city still tottering on the brink.

The album is filled with songs that muse about fate and human frailty, that tug at our collective empathy gene. "Funny the Way it Is" sets the yin/yang tone, musing about how one man is down when another is up, how somebody else's sad story "became your favorite song."

We hear it again in the driving dichotomies of "Why I Am" and the Led Zep/Middle Eastern-flavored "Squirm." Ironically, the track I bet you'll hear the most on the radio is the carnal-lusting, live-for-the-moment "Shake Me Like a Monkey." Ain't the music biz always that way?

SONIC BOOM: After a slew of major label albums, Sonic Youth has switched to the indie Matador label and in some ways seems bent on recapturing the grittiness of their youth. Some fans have suggested "The Eternal" (Matador, B) sounds like their albums of the early 1990s. I think they're glancing even farther back on songs like "Poison Arrow," evoking the aura and era of downtown New York psychedelic garage music and especially role models the Velvet Underground.

Bassist/singer Kim Gordon comes out of the shadows and makes the biggest impression with the sludgy head-spinner "Calming the Snake."

ANOTHER LAND: Some of the best music pulls us out of our mundane world and plants us in another we've never imagined. Dirty Projectors repeatedly pull off that mission on "Bitte Orca" (Domino, B+), with experimental yet accessible tone poems that embrace both Japanese and Afro-pop textures that revel in a mix of mundane imagery and odd time signatures (the homage to tract-housing life "Temecula Sunrise") that contrast the warble of group mastermind David Longstreth with a trio of ethereal female voices. Catch them June 17 at First Unitarian Church.

OLD TIME/NEW TIME: While they've worked up a fire-and-brimstone rowdiness in the past, on "The Holy Open Secret" (Mad Dragon/Ryko, B+) Phillybillies Hoots and Hellmouth take a more subdued approach to rustic Americana. It still answers to the calling "old timey" but now seems more saloon-flavored than back-porch. Tunes and production are more delicate and melodic, as the guys swing gently in a ragtime, bluesy, Sleepy John Estes kind of way.

More of the howling-at-winds persuasion is husky-voiced Ryan Bingham and his rockin' group the Dead Horses, cranking it up with "Roadhouse Sun" (Lost Highway, B+). Fans of Steve Earle (especially in the "lost" years.) will connect.

The Old 97's prolific front man Rhett Miller offers up another amazing crop of sunny pop rock tunes with a sardonic edge. Billed just "Rhett Miller" (Shout!Factory, A-), the set suggests the true essence of the man with notions like "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore" and "Happy Birthday Don't Die" that only hurt when you laugh.

What can I say about Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" (Concord, A) that hasn't been said already? Those early 1960s recordings changed the world and broke down barriers as Charles connected the dots between soul, gospel, jazz and country. So what's new now? These classic recordings are ours to have and hold in a remastered version that combines both volumes on a single CD and sounds great. *