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Pop Mary J. Blige, soul's reigning queen, seemed to be everywhere in 2009. Her singsong Auto-Tuned voice appeared in ads (the repetitious melody line of "The One") where an onscreen Mary J. kept changing outfits. Her gut-wrenching "I Can See in Color" was the theme of Lee Daniels' heartbroken flick Precious. So dread-filled yet joyful was the epically tender "Color" that it simply felt like another of Daniels' troubled characters.


Stronger With Each Tear

(Matriarch / Geffen **1/2)

nolead ends Mary J. Blige, soul's reigning queen, seemed to be everywhere in 2009. Her singsong Auto-Tuned voice appeared in ads (the repetitious melody line of "The One") where an onscreen Mary J. kept changing outfits. Her gut-wrenching "I Can See in Color" was the theme of Lee Daniels' heartbroken flick Precious. So dread-filled yet joyful was the epically tender "Color" that it simply felt like another of Daniels' troubled characters.

From those tunes to the sway and kick of "Kitchen" to the snaking sensuality of "Hood Love" - whether she's spitting through stormy-weather R&B or plinking hip-hop, Stronger proves again that she's a dynamic singer. It's not the strongest of her albums. There are too few hooks, too many righteous-but-rote Blige signature lyrical moments, and too little connectivity between its producers. Adversity is met and triumphed over, no doubt, but she needs to dig into some busted-up minutiae. Sonically, only producer Raphael Saadiq offers her challenges by going quiet and spare. Yet during "I Am," when she steams, "I've got everything you need right here," you can't help agreeing with the queen of pain.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Robin Thicke
nolead ends nolead begins Sex Therapy
nolead ends nolead begins (Star Trak ***)

nolead ends After spending much of his early career penning hits for other artists, including Lil Wayne and Usher, singer/songwriter Robin Thicke began recording his own material in 2003, putting a modern spin on blue-eyed soul. During the next few years, Thicke's name became synonymous with sweet-talking R&B. But with the release of his latest album, Sex Therapy, Thicke has crossed the line from playful innuendo to - well, no innuendo. Sex Therapy is Thicke's first album to have a parental advisory notice on the package, and for good reason. If the album title alone didn't give away much of the lyrical content, it'll hit you in the face just a few tracks in. Lyrics aside, the songwriting is pretty stellar. The sultry beats and provocative rhythms show heavy influence from both classic and modern R&B, but there are also unexpected influences from hip-hop and bossa nova. When Thicke combines slow and warm melodies with classy lyrics, the songs are beautiful. Otherwise, songs sound like outtakes from Flight of the Conchords.

- Katherine Silkaitis

nolead begins Lhasa
nolead ends nolead begins Lhasa
nolead ends nolead begins (Nettwerk ***1/2)

nolead ends Lhasa takes her time. A Mexican American from Montreal, Lhasa de Sela released her first album, the acclaimed La Llorona, in 1998, and her second, The Living Road, in 2003. Her third, simply Lhasa, came out this year. It's her first with all English songs, her most understated, and her best. Buoyed by spare guitar-picking and harp-

plucking, with minimal bass and drums and glimpses of piano and violin, it's a stately, acoustic, nocturnal album of roiling emotions. It's gorgeous.

"Rising" is a waltz-time ballad of stormy sentiment; "Love Came Here" clatters and thumps, but softly; "Where Do You Go" floats on a shimmering harp figure. Throughout, Lhasa sings in an aching, pure alto, with a poetic gravitas that never slips into melodrama. The songs move slowly and deliberately, taking their time. Fans of Sam Phillips, Keren Ann, Marianne Faithfull, or Cowboy Junkies take note.

- Steve Klinge

nolead begins Annie
nolead ends nolead begins Don't Stop
nolead ends nolead begins (Smalltown Supersound ***)

nolead ends From La Roux to Little Boots, there was no shortage of indie-approved Euro electro-pop available in 2009. And showing up in the United States a full year after its European release (albeit in altered form) is Don't Stop, the follow-up to Norwegian pop star Anne Lilia Berge-Strand's 2004 Anniemal. But on Don't Stop, Annie's particularly good at lacing percolating grooves with bummed-out undercurrents, as on the breathy "Bad Times," in which the escalating beats-per-minute can't help her escape the reality that "the loneliness reminds you that everything fades." She's catty on "My Love Is Better," which features Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos on guitar, and suggests a boring rock-boy spice up his sound by buying a sequencer in "I Don't Like Your Band."

A late arrival to the hipster dance party that's more than welcome.

- Dan DeLuca


My Walking Stick

(Black Hen ***1/2)

nolead ends Jim Byrnes is better known as an actor, at least in the States - he played "Lifeguard" to undercover agent Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) in the great '80s TV series Wiseguy. But the St. Louis-born singer and guitarist is also a superb roots musician, and in Canada a multiple award-winning one. My Walking Stick came out earlier this year, but it's too good to go without a mention before 2009 passes.

The album, named after the Irving Berlin title song and featuring key contributions from producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson, mixes top-flight self-penned numbers with covers well- known and obscure. Singing in a weathered but warm voice, Byrnes sometimes offers inspired rearrangements - the Band's "Ophelia" is slowed to ballad pace in the verses, and the horns are replaced by fiddle and a gospel chorus - and sometimes he sticks close to the source, as on the Ray Charles hit "Drown in My Own Tears." Either way, Byrnes deeply inhabits all the material, weaving the various strains of country, R&B, gospel, and folk into a personal vision that manages to sound both age-old and original.

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins The Revelations
Featuring Tre Williams
nolead ends nolead begins The Bleeding Edge
nolead ends nolead begins (Decision ***)

nolead ends In the liner notes to their first album - it expands on the EP Deep Soul - the Revelations urge listeners to check out "the classic Southern soul artists" who inspired the group - from Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to Al Green and Percy Sledge.

The thrust of The Bleeding Edge, however, is more urban and contemporary than Southern and old-school. The ballad-heavy set leans more toward smooth refinement than gospel-rooted grit. In Tre Williams, though, the Revelations have a versatile vocalist who emotes with the depth and power of the group's role models. He grabs your attention from the start with the rock-edged swagger of "Stay Free" (we wish there was more in this vein), and keeps it through the pleading desperation of "Let's Straighten It Out," the intense joy of "Because of You," and a slow-burn take on Carole King's "It's Too Late," in which Williams and company breathe new life into the soft-rock classic.

- N.C.



(Dreambox Media ***1/2)

nolead ends Larry McKenna, along with Robert "Bootsie" Barnes, remains a defining Philly tenor, a lineage that goes back to John Coltrane, among others. McKenna takes top billing here with a big creamy tone and a sure hand through the changes. Listening to McKenna is like going through life with a driver - or at least how I imagine those circumstances. Everything is reliably soulful, and he's always secure on the accelerator.

McKenna's foil is pianist Tom Lawton, along with a polished rhythm section of drummer Dan Monaghan and bassist Kevin MacConnell. Lawton is so pure he could be playing with white gloves.

The formula is similar to past McKenna outings: The focus rests on standards, though McKenna offers two originals, including the boppish "Is It Over My Head?", which clearly isn't.

The melody-solo-melody pattern doesn't vary. Instead of free, there's a tinge of Latin with "Tres Palabras" and three Cole Porter tunes, including "I Love You," with singer Nancy Reed sitting in.

It all makes for a cocktail moment. This is honed mellowness.

- Karl Stark

nolead begins Erik Deutsch
nolead ends nolead begins Hush Money
nolead ends nolead begins (Hammer & String ***)

nolead ends Erik Deutsch, who cofounded the jam band Fat Mama, was also the keyboard man behind guitarist Charlie Hunter. Here, Deutsch channels Hunter-like grooves but seasons them with vintage keyboards like the Moog and the Hammond organ, while sometimes veering off in a pop direction. Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and reed man Mike McGinnis' clarinet also give the set unusual sonorities.

The resulting mix is heavy on atmospherics and reverb, and occasionally projects the drone quality of a happenin' cult. It's also full of novel thoughts and risk-taking. The set sounds like a cool late-night radio station of unknown origin.

"Black Flies" is slinky and slightly Latin, while "Dirty Osso Bucco" is full of bluesy horns, honky-tonk piano, and the rhythms of a definite dance number. "India Rubber" is a machine-like mover. "Quittin' Time" sounds like the Beatles meet Shaft until it becomes a soundtrack for a TV comedy. The set begins and ends in pop's lala land. But there's lots of intriguing earthiness in between.

- K.S.


Linda Watson, Stephen Gould, Albert Dohmen, Eva-Marie Westbroek, Endrik Wottrich et al. Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Christian Thielemann conducting

(Opus Arte, 14 discs, ***)

nolead ends There's something winningly retro about a brand-new Ring Cycle recording that's neither downloadable (at least yet) nor on DVD. And while zeroing in on the orchestra's contribution, you could believe this is something from one of the Wagnerian golden ages. Christian Thielemann ranks with the best, both now and in the recorded past. His reading of the huge, four-part saga has Georg Solti's towering grandeur as well as Herbert von Karajan's clarity of texture - in a conception that has Thielemann's own unique specificity: With singers, he accompanies in the spirit of a precise German art-song pianist, projecting the most subtle strokes of characterization. The sound quality is the best yet from Bayreuth, and that's saying a lot.

The singers, however, give credence to the belief that there are plenty of good Wagnerian singers, but not at Bayreuth. Time and again, the principal singers fail to rise to the heroic heights that Thielemann's conception so often demands. One must expect moments of vocal labor in any live Ring Cycle, but at times, the often-good Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) barely keeps her head above water. The men generally fare better - even tenor Stephen Gould amid the vocal impossibilities of Siegfried, and certainly Albert Dohmen's deeply-felt Wotan - but whether this adds up to a value worthy of the set's $140 price tag is a more personal matter.

- David Patrick Stearns