(Merge ***1/2)

nolead ends Conor Oberst is 36 now, and the former wunderkind singer-songwriter once celebrated for the precocity of his work as Bright Eyes has been making records for so long he's easily taken for granted. But this true solo project - recorded in 48 hours with only the backing of his own acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica, after he moved from New York back home to Omaha, Neb. - demands attention. It benefits both from dark-night-of-the-soul musings that come with a brush with mortality (he canceled tour dates last year after a cyst was discovered on his brain) and the bitterness that beckons with youth slipping away. "Closing my eyes, counting sheep," he sings. "Gun in my mouth, trying to sleep."

Oberst has said he penned "You All Loved Him Once" about the burdens placed on pop-star oracles such as John Lennon, but he could have written it about his own once-worshipful audience. Also sharp and winningly cynical is the awkwardly titled "Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)," named after Frank Lloyd Wright's lover and muse, which wrestles with the challenges of trying to create art that will stand the test of time.

- Dan DeLuca

nolead begins Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions
nolead ends nolead begins Until the Hunter
nolead ends nolead begins (Tendril Tales ***)

nolead ends Hope Sandoval's voice is breathy and quiet, full of introspective calm and detached cool, but tinged with mystery. It's instantly familiar to fans of Mazzy Star, Sandoval's partnership with David Roback, and it's equally compelling on this, her third album with My Bloody Valentine's Colm O'Ciosoig. Although some songs, such as the nine-minute opener, "Into the Trees," are so slow and abstract they threatened to drift into the ether, Until the Hunter is full of subtle textures and variations.

O'Ciosoig deploys a wide range of guitars as anchors: a gentle slide here, acoustic fingerpicking there; sometimes gauzy, reverb-drenched feedback, sometimes shimmery, psychedelic swirls. The arrangements often are sparse, even when fleshed out with a full band and Sandoval on vibraphone, but the mood is captivating. For an added treat, Philadelphia's Kurt Vile drops in for album highlight, "Let Me Get There," a laconic, seven-and-a-half minute duet in the vein of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

- Steve Klinge
nolead begins Alicia Keys
nolead ends nolead begins Here
nolead ends nolead begins (RCA ***)

nolead ends New York City's Alicia Keys has always displayed her talents as a jazzily soulful singer, pianist, and composer effortlessly and breezily. She never had to try to be or to have - or so it seemed. That's probably why, after the overly grand, overwrought but bland, forced-anthem overdrive of her last album, Girl on Fire, she's gone smaller, funnier, and funkier and humbler with the New York stories of Here and its sometimes prickly peek at politics, social, and personal issues.

Sleek without being slick, spare without being empty, raw without being rough, Keys benefits from having a husband (Swizz Beatz) with friends (Pharrell, Illangelo) in the R&B/rap production game whose lives as lovers, artists, and friends spill into the shimmering rough diamond soul of "Blended Family" and the street scenes of "The Gospel."

Emotive and experimental (in a percussive sense, with vibraphonist Roy Ayers up front throughout), Here moves from the broad battle of "Holy War" to the communal howl of "More Than We Know." The best parts of Here, though, are its rich, avant-soul epics "Illusion of Bliss" and "She Don't Really Care_1 Luv." The latter elegantly and eerily connects the dots between Africa and New York's boroughs with grace and smarts. Gorgeous stuff.

- A.D. Amorosi


Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings; Bruno Mars, 24K Magic; Metallica, Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct; Justice, WomanEndText