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Pop As with country, formula is so embedded into R&B that nearly anything that escapes is a subversive new wrinkle in an old trope. R. Kelly is oft-praised for this, in his "Trapped in the Closet" soap opera and outlandish sexual metaphors invol


Love Letter

(Jive ***)

nolead ends As with country, formula is so embedded into R&B that nearly anything that escapes is a subversive new wrinkle in an old trope. R. Kelly is oft-praised for this, in his "Trapped in the Closet" soap opera and outlandish sexual metaphors involving kitchens, cars, and planets. Last year's phenomenally impressive "Echo" found him literally yodeling in bed. But on Love Letter, except for the one about doing you-know-what in a "Taxi Cab," the concept is the old trope. Half of its tracks have the word love in the title, and most of them emulate his influences with live-retro band backing. Because funky soul is better than lounge goop, this is one of his better albums, especially on "Just Can't Get Enough," "Love Is," and the showstopping "When a Woman Loves." But haven't you heard those titles before?

- Dan Weiss

nolead begins Deadmau5
nolead ends nolead begins 4 X 4 = 12
nolead ends nolead begins (Ultra ***)

nolead ends You're familiar with the oversize head and the big mouse ears of progressive house music maven Deadmau5. Sports fans saw the Canadian-born DJ perform at Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Kids caught Mau5 as a character in Activision's DJ Hero 2 video game. Yet with the exception of singles compilations such as It Sounds Like and the mix-mastered likes of For Lack of a Better Name, he has not released a full-length artist CD of his own until now. While massive electro epics such as "Some Chords" and the nasty "Animal Rights" (both previously released) fill this Daft Punk-y CD, there are, happily, dastardly surprises at every turn. While "One Trick Pony" and "Raise Your Weapon" find the Mau5 hotly interpreting the clutter of dubstep, the rich electro classicism of "Right This Second" and the crepuscular moodiness of "Cthulhu Sleeps" are lustrously ripe with eerie yet catchy melodies as through-lines to their pulsing, beating heart.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Ryan Adams & the Cardinals
nolead ends nolead begins III/IV
nolead ends nolead begins (PAX-AM **1/2)

nolead ends Productivity has never been an issue for Ryan Adams & the Cardinals. But after the death of the group's longtime bassist, Chris Feinstein, and Adams' own temporary absence from the band, it's taken the Cardinals two years to follow up 2008's Cardinology with their latest release, III/IV.

A collection of unreleased tracks and outtakes from the sessions that produced 2007's Easy Tiger, III/IV is a frustrating return for the often-dynamic Cardinals. Dispensing with any pretense of experimentation, this hefty double album delivers 21 straightforward rock numbers. But it's rare that a double album is worth the doubling, and III/IV is no exception; it's just too much of an average thing.

Amid aimless fillers - "The Crystal Skull," "Dear Candy" - lie true pleasures, such as the discordant "Happy Birthday" and the Interpol-charged "Ultraviolet Light." With editing, III/IV could have been a welcome addition to Adams' eclectic collection. But with wheat and chaff unseparated, III/IV is for Adams obsessives only.

- Emily Tartanella

nolead begins Andrew Bird
nolead ends nolead begins Useless Creatures
nolead ends nolead begins (Fat Possum **1/2)

nolead ends Andrew Bird's albums crackle with eclectic wordplay, esoteric themes, impressive whistling, and even more impressive violin-playing. Useless Creatures, however, is an animal of a slightly different stripe: it's a set of instrumentals (give or take a few sighs and whistles), originally released as a bonus CD with 2009's Noble Beast, that highlights Bird's wide-ranging interests and experimental spirit.

Recorded quickly with bassist Todd Sickafoose and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, Useless Creatures favors extended pieces built on cyclical patterns or loops but anchored in a wide range of styles: classical chamber pieces ("You Woke Me Up!"), ambient drones (the Eno-esque "The Barn Tapes"), African vibes (the Konono No. 1-inspired "Hot Math"), and sometimes a hodgepodge ("Carrion Suite"). As background music, Useless Creatures is useful; in the foreground, it's a diversion.

- Steve Klinge


Sometimes Ya Gotta . . .

(Rev Records ***1/2)

nolead ends You don't come across too many female honky-tonk firebrands, let alone one who also blows a nasty harmonica. So in that sense Stacie Collins stands out from the get-go. Team her with producer Dan Baird, the former Georgia Satellites front man, and a band that includes Baird and Jason and the Scorchers' Warner E. Hodges on guitars, and you've got somebody who, in a better world, would be a big star.

Sometimes Ya Gotta . . . is Collins' second collaboration with Baird, and like The Lucky Spot it's a blazing amalgam of Satellites, Scorchers, Stones, and Skynyrd. But Collins, who cowrote all 12 songs with her husband, Scorchers bassist Al Collins, who also plays here, has passion and personality to burn, making these familiar riffs all her own. And while Collins most often comes across as one tough, swaggering broad ("Lord you know he's gotta pay for what he done to me," she warns on "Lend the Devil a Hand"), on the acoustic-flecked changes of pace "Little Things" and "It Hurts to Breathe," this cowboy-hatted hell-raiser can turn touchingly angelic.

- Nick Cristiano


Never Can Say Goodbye:
The Music of Michael Jackson

(HighNote ***1/2)

nolead ends Organist Joey DeFrancesco takes the gloves off on this foray into the music of Michael Jackson. Which is not to say it's a pugilistic outing. DeFrancesco, a Philly area native, honors the one-gloved one by taking a few commercial layers off and applying some verve from a jazz-soul point of view.

He turns "Thriller" into a vampire-like romp. Yes, it starts with thunder and gets punctuated by wild laughter and a speaker going on about "the hounds of hell." Yet it still shows a deep cooking feeling. "Beat It" features DeFrancesco on trumpet, making for a moment much like his mentor, Miles Davis, who also dipped into the Jackson oeuvre on occasion.

"Rock With You" is pretty commercial, yet crackles respectably. DeFrancesco sings "She's Out of My Life" with sincerity, though it had me pining for Eddie Murphy's imitation of that tune. The leader proves more persuasive on "The Way You Make Me Feel," where drummer Byron Landham really rocks the house.

- Karl Stark


Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32 plus Schumann's Sonata in B-flat and short works

Claude Frank, piano

(Dorian two discs ***1/2)

nolead ends nolead begins Sonatas No. 28-32
nolead ends nolead begins Stewart Goodyear, piano

(Marquis ****)

nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 21, & 25
nolead ends nolead begins Steven Osborne, piano

(Hyperion ****)

nolead ends Beethoven piano sonatas arrive from performers in three distinct stages of life. The youngest is Stewart Goodyear, who is often considered a semi-pops pianist, given his improvisational skills. Here, with Beethoven's last five sonatas, he leaps the summit of the piano repertoire with complete success. Performances have a thrilling energy, mania for details, and brim with interpretive ideas that seem to leap out of the speakers in three dimensions. Is he in the rarefied league of Maurizio Pollini? Maybe. Time will tell.

The middle-aged Steven Osborne takes a satisfying route to Beethoven via Mozart, emphasizing precision and the truth of the individual notes, as opposed to heroic washes of sound. In fact, Osborne seems to have a Mozart-era fortepiano in his mind's ear.

Claude Frank inhabits a different sphere: This set, titled 85th Birthday Celebration, records his musical thoughts while it's still possible, and the repertoire suits that station in life: the last three Beethoven sonatas and Schubert's swan song in that medium, all warmly recorded by producer Judith Sherman. One might expect self-indulgent ruminating; instead, there are profound acts of conciliation with Beethoven's far-flung musical elements coexisting, sometimes even comfortably. His Schubert refreshingly lacks morbidity. Though you hear some technical labor, the disc lacks the recklessness of Frank's live performances, and that's the one thing missing here.

- David Patrick Stearns