Willie Nelson
and Sister Bobbie

December Day: Willie's Stash Vol. 1

(Legacy ***)

nolead ends Bobbie Nelson has been playing piano in her brother Willie's band for more than 40 years, and they played together in other Texas bands before that. So these octogenarian siblings have forged a deep musical connection, and it's put into even sharper relief than usual on December Day.

These 18 new performances are built around the eloquent interplay between Bobbie's piano and Willie's battered acoustic guitar, Trigger, with the main accompaniment coming from Mickey Raphael's harmonica. If the song choices are familiar - the bulk comes from the Willie songbook, and he does all the singing - they exert a new, subtly powerful pull thanks to the Nelsons' beautifully understated treatments.

While the siblings conjure a warmly intimate mood, the hour-long set would have benefited from more variety of tempo. After they open with a jaunty take on Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," everything unfolds at a slow pace. - Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Wu-Tang Clan
nolead ends nolead begins A Better Tomorrow
nolead ends nolead begins (Warner Bros ***)

nolead ends The innovative Wu-Tang Clan arose in 1993 with their menacing album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in which bone-rattling rhythms, icily spare arrangements, and lyrics rife with martial-arts imagery and cocaine talk defined them. By 2004, Ol' Dirty Bastard, their most notorious member, was dead. Solo efforts were lame, save for those of Ghostface Killah and RZA. Joint albums were barely existent. Yet despite his career as actor/director, RZA - the group's sonic manipulator - never ceased trying to unite the Clan's resistant members. A Better Tomorrow is the brilliant, fuzzy result of his efforts.

There's change in the Clan's sound, welcome lush soundscapes with cushiony samples (for example, the title track's riff on "Wake Up Everybody," by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes), and soft, vintage R&B vibes, as in the track "Ron O'Neal." Often, you miss the bluntness of the old recordings, the grimy beats, the cutting voices. They reach back for some of that on tracks such as "Ruckus in B Minor" and "Pioneer the Frontier." And there's grit in Raekwon's coke-filled texts, the nimble raps from GZA and Method Man, an appearance from ODB, and what passes for hopefulness during "Never Let Go," when RZA snaps, "Never let go of your team." - A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins She & Him
nolead ends nolead begins Classics
nolead ends nolead begins (Columbia ***)

nolead ends Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, as She & Him, have always foregrounded their affection for the Brill Building era of early '60s pop. Deschanel's songs, throughout the duo's three albums, revealed her expertise in crafting melodies that seem inevitable without sounding labored, and they showcased her guileless, inviting voice. For his part, Ward's arrangements and guitar playing were smart and savvy but at the same time understated and judicious.

On Classics, the pair go all-in on nostalgia, as they did for their 2012 album A Very She & Him Christmas. With songs drawn mostly from the late '50s but reaching back to the '30s and with one outlier from the '70s (Charles Aznavour's "She," which Ward sings), Classics is loving and lovely, if inconsistent. Deschanel fares better with light, airy tunes like "Oh No, Not My Baby" than with more thoughtful songs like "It's Always You." Recorded live with string and brass sections, it's an homage to the sound of Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick, even when Deschanel & Ward appropriate songs done by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. - Steve Klinge

New Recordings: On Sale Tuesday


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