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These new musica albums are, well, different

Sifting through this week's new album releases, I got to thinking about a classic "Saturday Night Live" fake commercial for (overly) tight-fitting jeans branded "Bad Idea."

John Mellencamp's new CD ventures into country blues.
John Mellencamp's new CD ventures into country blues.Read more

Sifting through this week's new album releases, I got to thinking about a classic "Saturday Night Live" fake commercial for (overly) tight-fitting jeans branded "Bad Idea."

I'm not saying this week's works are totally off the mark. But several are clearly challenging expectations, both in material choices and marketing.

FOR STARTERS: Didja' know that John Mellencamp was a down-on-his-luck, old-time country blues and rockabilly storyteller?

The guy's been inching in that direction for a couple of albums, but "No Better Than This" (Rounder, B+) is so stark, so primitive you might think it's recovered treasure from the 1950s.

Fingerpicked tunes like "Right Behind Me" and "A Graceful Fall" could have been written by Mississippi John Hurt, while twang guitar and slap bass rockabilly numbers like the title track might have come from the pen and mouth of a just-getting-started Johnny Cash.

Recorded in mono at three historic locations: America's oldest black church, a hotel room once occupied by Robert Johnson, and the Sun studio where many a great rockabilly cat first howled, the set is especially ripe with got-to-smile-to-keep-from-crying tunes tossed off with a casual demeanor and sonic quality to match.

I started out dreading the premise of "Cougar" as a crotchety old man, but he eventually won me over with the humorous unspooling of "Love at First Sight" and the father-and-son adventure "Easter Eve" and with the sing-along qualities of "Comin' Down the Road" and philosophical "Save Some Time To Dream."

THE WILSON TOUCH: Do not operate farm machinery while listening to Brian Wilson's "Reimagining Gershwin" (Disney Pearl Series, B), especially if you're a purist about George Gershwin standards. Wilson's lush, wall o' sound, Beach Boys-flavored remakes - dolled up with stacked vocals, clip-clop percussion, muted horns and strings - are sometimes so weird they could make you dizzy.

Think "I Got Rhythm" done like "Little Deuce Coupe," or "They Can't Take That Away from Me" with jumpin' piano, boogity-boogity-shoo chorus boys and false endings a la "Barbara Ann."

Wilson doesn't put much emotional commitment into the medley of songs from "Porgy and Bess" - oozing "I Loves You Porgy" with all the phrasing but none of the emotion of Nina Simone's earthy rendering, and totally missing the sardonic wink in "It Ain't Necessarily So."

But ballads like "I've Got a Crush on You" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" fit well to Wilson's earnest, cozy crooning style and production, as do his (and Scott Bennett's) sunny finessing of two previously unheard Gershwin melodies turning them into "The Like in I Love You" and "Nothing But Love."

ESPERANZA ARRIVES: Lots of people have been buying into the "Esperanza Spalding is the next big thing in jazz" line. She's definitely a wunderkind, such a terrific bassist that the Berklee College of Music elevated her from student status to teacher immediately upon graduation. Spalding has also proven a pretty crafty composer and an appealing singer. And to boot, the woman is cute and (retro) stylish, the reason that fashion magazines have also picked up on her. But Spalding doesn't just want to be the hot thing in Vogue. She wants respect from peers and the critics. "Chamber Music Society" (Heads Up, B+) is nothing if not ambitious, going for the eerie as much as the accessible, even in her vocals, with a swirl of uncommon Latin rhythms and "Third Stream"-style string-ensemble arrangements by Gil Goldstein as indebted to modern serious music as to jazz.

Some of the set seems a bit academic, too much like a senior thesis. But Spalding won me over with her exotic tango extensions on "Wild Is The Wind," the "Night in Tunisia"-like "Really Very Small" and a haunting, ruminative original "Apple Blossom" that aptly engaged kindred Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento.

DUELING LAMENTERS: Why are David Gray and Ray LaMontagne out on tour together - including a show here Friday at the Susquehanna Bank Center? For that matter, why are both releasing albums today, Gray with "Foundling" (Mercer Street, B+), LaMontagne with "God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise" (RCA/Red, B)?

Both are guitar-strumming troubadours who suck you in with distinctive thorny/keening vocals, foreboding lyrics and haunting melody lines. So aren't they competing for the same listeners?


But then there's the theory that birds of a feather should flock together. Or that shoe stores should locate in the same block. One-stop shopping rules!

And truthfully, there are discernible differences between their new sets. LaMontagne's is shorter and sweeter, his pop rock sagas easier to follow and boasting more changes of pace, often veering down a country road with his new Pariah Dogs band. To my ear, it sounds as if LaMontagne's done a lot of listening lately to Tracy Chapman, Cat Stevens and Stephen Stills.

Gray's new album and a half (spread over two CDs) is darker, lusher and more intimate, with lots of vague lyrical hints of looming mortality and expansive string charts lending a touch of class and stature. Gray's vocals are equally mumbly/incantational, indebted to Van Morrison and to his record label for kindly including a lyric sheet. Otherwise, we'd get much of it wrong!

EASY TO LIKE: If, like me, you're a fan of warm, bopping club jazz, you're gonna love saxophonist/composer Bob Mintzer's outing to "Canyon Cove" (, A) with Hammond B3 organist Larry Goldings and drummer Peter Erskine. There's just one famous cover ("When I Fall in Love"), yet Mintzer's originals and the trio's playing prove so vital there's no turning back or tuning out.

After a spell in "thoughtful artist" mode, country rocker Trace Adkins has embraced high jinks again on "Cowboy's Back in Town" (Show Dog/Universal, B.) Highpoints include the goofy tale of a brewski-soaked wedding "Hold My Beer" and his shout-outs to the losers in sports and movies "Hell, I Can Do That."

How did you mark the 33rd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death yesterday? I paused to reflect with the new Blu-ray release of "Elvis On Tour" (Warner Bros. Home Video, B) a documentary from the early '70s that captured The King in all his glittery gospel, rocking, ballad-loving and kung fu fighting fashion, surrounded by a huge entourage of singers and players. The "Woodstock"-like split screen imagery sometimes comes in and out of focus on a high-definition TV, but the new 5.1 channel DTS-HD MA sound mix is quite immersive. Available in a special "Digi-Book" edition or (the better deal) bundled with Blu-rays of "Jailhouse Rock" and "Viva Las Vegas."