nolead begins The Shins
nolead ends nolead begins Wincing the Night Away
nolead ends nolead begins (SubPop ***)

nolead ends The Shins' first album since Natalie Portman promised Zach Braff in Garden State that one song would change his life won't change many minds about the Albuquerque, N.M., band. The James Mercer-led outfit deals in unabashedly wimpy, expertly crafted indie pop. Really, could it have come up with a more feeble title than Wincing the Night Away? But if Mercer is at times overly delicate, Wincing is also the most sonically rich Shins album, and songs such as the string-infused "Red Rabbits," the piercing "Split Needles," and the lush "Phantom Limb" soar to satisfying heights of dweebiness.

- Dan DeLuca

nolead begins The Bird and the Bee
nolead ends nolead begins The Bird and the Bee
nolead ends nolead begins (Metro Blue ***)

nolead ends The Bird and the Bee began as a lark. Here's the buzz: Keyboardist Greg Kurstin, who has worked with Beck and the Flaming Lips, was playing on Inara George's 2005 solo debut, All Rise, when the two started goofing around with some jazz standards. Then they started writing songs of their own, and the result is this breezy, summery confection.

Kurstin's music crosses Brazilian tropicalia with indie electro pop and throws in whimsical horns and shimmering strings. George, the daughter of Little Feat's Lowell George, sings in a high, girlish voice, and she relishes the cognitive dissonance of chirping to a bubbly electro beat, "Would you ever be my freaking boyfriend" (although she uses a less socially acceptable adjective). The Bird And The Bee is sometimes sexy, sometimes sarcastic and sometimes both. Fans of the Mosquitos, Bebel Gilberto or Annie should take note.

- Steve Klinge

nolead begins Lil' Scrappy
nolead ends nolead begins Bred 2 Die Born 2 Live
nolead ends nolead begins (BME/Reprise **)

nolead ends Since introducing himself to the rap world, Scrappy has found himself stuck between crunk and a hard place. That's not bad. Along with having a mentor/producer in crunk king Lil Jon, Scrappy (known to his fam as Darryl Richardson II) is now in 50 Cent's G Unit crew.

With a voice sounding older than his years, the half-Iranian, half-African American Atlanta native kicks a gangsta's flow through a diffuse, poppy brand of crunk. Without missing any of crunk's high energy, Scrappy talks down the police and speaks up about the poverty of his youth on "Livin' in the Projects." He maintains a pensive, ruminative quality on "Lord Have Mercy" in a dark, lyrical voice he could have learned from hanging with Fiddy. Cool.

But too much gangsta boasting for a kid his age, too few interesting guests, and too many lifeless party tracks like "Been a Boss" make much of Bred 2 Die a no-brainer. It's a decent record. But if Scrappy's born 2 live, he should prove it more often.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins The Good, the Bad
and the Queen
nolead ends nolead begins The Good, the Bad
and the Queen
nolead ends nolead begins (Virgin **1/2)

nolead ends Blur and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn has founded yet another outlet for his restless muse, a "supergroup" with Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, and frequent Albarn cohort/guitarist Simon Tong, plus the producing hand of Gnarls Barkley's Danger Mouse.

Like recent Gorillaz and Blur platters - sans a hooky single like "Feel Good Inc." - The Good, the Bad and the Queen is filled with bleary rhythms and anxious political ruminations. Albarn constructs achingly lovely melodies for "80s Life," "Herculean" and "A Soldier's Tale," and he's honed his lyrical gaze on his home country of England for the first time since Blur's mid-'90s heyday. But the overall somnambulant tone of the album (at least until the frenzied jam on the closing title track) only makes the dull stretches sound even duller.

- Michael Pelusi


nolead begins The McKay Brothers
nolead ends nolead begins Cold Beer and Hot Tamales
nolead ends nolead begins (Medina River ***)

nolead ends

They really are brothers, Noel and Hollin McKay, and they harmonize like siblings. On this sophomore set, the duo comes across as a Lone Star version of the Everlys, less effervescent but still engaging, and with a deeper honky-tonk streak.

Noel and Hollin trade lead vocals throughout, as their originals move from the sober-minded and spiritual ("A Warmer Place to Sleep," "Spirit Bird") to the boozily humorous ("Bottle of Fire," "Bandera Style"). Producer Lloyd Maines adds color with his steel guitar and dobro, and two songs sung in both English and Spanish help cement Cold Beer and Hot Tamales' well-grounded sense of place.

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Steve Goodman
nolead ends nolead begins Live at the Earl of Old Town
nolead ends nolead begins (Red Pajamas ***1/2)

nolead ends

A singer-songwriter who came out of the same Chicago scene as his friend John Prine, Steve Goodman was only 36 when he died of leukemia in 1984. This exuberant live set, recorded in his hometown in 1978, is a testament to his keenly observant songwriting, his terrific guitar playing, and his down-to-earth showmanship.

Accompanied by one to four acoustic musicians, Goodman shows he's not just an earnestly strumming folkie. Among originals like the wry "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" and, of course, his famous "City of New Orleans," he adds tangy blues to the gospel chestnut "I'll Fly Away," tackles hard-country tunes like "Lost Highway" and the tongue- twisting "The Auctioneer," offers 1930s string-band revelry with "Let's Give a Party," and absolutely rips through "Rockin' Robin." After that, it's hard not to be charmed when he encores with a seemingly impromptu salute to his beloved Chicago Cubs, "When the Cubs Go Marching In."

- N.C.


nolead begins Cedar Walton
nolead ends nolead begins One Flight Down
nolead ends nolead begins (HighNote Records ***1/2)

nolead ends Pianist Cedar Walton is a major cat whose career traces the evolution of hard bop from drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Art Farmer's Jazztet to Walton's elegant quartet, Eastern Rebellion.

Also a celebrated composer, Walton, 73, starts here with two boppish originals that cradle the blues nicely, and feature saxophonist Vincent Herring, also a certified Blakey veteran (of 1980s vintage).

Then as a trio, Walton embarks on a Billy Strayhorn run, pulling warm thoughts from "Lush Life" and "Daydream" before "Raincheck" gives drummer Joe Farnsworth a chance to lay down some suavely struck patter.

Then it's time to ease down with some standards, including a pleasantly funky take of Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" and Sammy Cahn's "Time After Time," which becomes a handsome affair. Walton never leaves the blues too far behind, given his romp through "Hammer Head," by Wayne Shorter, a fellow Jazz Messenger during Walton's early 1960s tenure. Clearly, you've got to have your hard-bop bona fides to play with this guy.

- Karl Stark

nolead begins Orrin Evans Trio
nolead ends nolead begins Live in Jackson, Mississippi
nolead ends nolead begins (Imani Records ***)

nolead ends While many people are patching together short songs for playlists, pianist Orrin Evans defies the trend by presenting a live trio recording with generously long tracks.

The Philly-based artist, who burst onto the national consciousness by nearly winning the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, often goes against the grain.

But perhaps it's because he's so good at it. Few pianists are as consistently creative and intuitive. His trio with bassist Madison Rast and drummer Byron Landham strays far from the current trend of retro recycling; the trio treads where the spirit takes it.

Evans splashes tension and dissonance all over "Captain's Prelude." His solo comes out in fits and builds to a fever pitch over a slow and simmering vamp, while "Dorm Life" presents a never-ending well of ideas cascading through the keys.

High-energy and often percussive, Evans also delves into beauty here on the traditional "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The trio's exploration of that tune is sensitive and far-reaching, leaving you in a spiritually buzzed state. "Libra," too, is full of hushed chords and delicately struck notes, suggesting that Evans is developing his art.

- K.S.


nolead begins Beethoven
Piano Sonatas No. 8 ("Pathetique") Op. 13; No. 9 Op. 14 No. 1; No. 10 Op. 14 No. 2; No. 11 Op. 22; No. 21 ("Waldstein") Op. 53; No. 25 ("Alla tedesca") Op. 79; No. 28 Op. 101 and No. 29 ("Hammer–klavier") Op. 106.
nolead ends nolead begins Paul Lewis, piano.
(Harmonia Mundi, three discs, ****)
nolead ends

The first installment of Paul Lewis' complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas was a single disc of the Op. 31 sonatas that was promising but didn't adequately advertise the mastery that's so abundant in this three-CD swipe through Beethoven's 32 sonatas, one that encompasses the toughest of all, the "Hammerklavier."

Few pianists pay so much attention to voicing of vertical sonorities; purely on a sensual level, this is the best-sounding Beethoven since Vladimir Ashkenazy's set of sonatas. More refreshingly, Lewis never seems awed or intimidated, even by the most abstract, rhetorically grand or obscurely quirky moments of the late sonatas. Every phrase has such a highly personal imagination - sometimes taking considerable chances with pianissimos and use of silence - yet conveyed with pinpoint elegance.

The performances also communicate a great sense of personal enjoyment. Though it's too early to say if the set is a classic in the making, that's the quality that makes me return to these recordings - not because they're a healthy tonic, but because I love them. - David Patrick Stearns

nolead begins William Schuman
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 and Judith: Choreographic Poem for Orchestra.
nolead ends nolead begins Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, conducting.
(Naxos ***)
nolead ends Just because William Schuman ran the Juilliard School for years doesn't mean he was an academic composer. Though he was of the Aaron Copland generation of composers - their harmonies have a family resemblance and both knew how to use the orchestra with big, bony strokes - Schuman was more abstract and far less prone toward the Americana atmosphere of Copland.

It's not the most alluring music on first listen, but is extremely generous in repeated visits, thanks to Schuman's ability to draw such dramatic and wide-ranging effects from traditional forms. Composers often save their most compelling moments for particular instruments, and Schuman comes into his glory with the lower brass.

Luckily, that's one of the primary strengths of this orchestra, along with the radiance given to Schuman's sound palette by Seattle's Benaroya Hall, at least in the Symphony No. 3. The other recordings date from 1991 and '91, and though Schwarz is a consistently authoritative interpreter, the orchestra struggles more audibly in the earlier recordings with densely contrapuntal moments.
- D.P.S.