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Billboard
updated 7/7/2008 3:17:24 PM ET 2008-07-07T19:17:24

RZA as Bobby Digital, “Digi Snacks”
Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA returns for a third time to his Bobby Digital alter-ego, his new rhymes ranging from pseudo-standard gangsta cliches to a dizzying mash-up of pop-culture references (Jabba the Hutt, mogwai and Hunt’s Ketchup all get name-checked in a matter of 10 seconds) to bizarre boasts (“When I was young/I slept with a battery under my tongue/so when I spit/the impact with a sting of a stun gun”). But it’s the beats and production that really define an RZA release, and they’re as intoxicating as ever on “Digi Snacks.” Bass lines and obscure samples lunge in and out of slithering, off-kilter rhythms, illustrating the virtuosity of this one-of-a-kind rap artist.

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Los Lonely Boys, “Forgiven”
Los Lonely Boys have reached the liberation point. They’ve had the multiplatinum, Grammy Award-winning major-label debut in 2003, and they had the sophomore slump with 2006’s “Sacred.” With expectations tempered for “Forgiven,” the sibling trio from Texas doesn’t panic but rather retrenches, returning to the easy-grooving, harmony-laden Carlos Santana-meets-Stevie Ray Vaughan feel of its first album. “Forgiven” kicks off with the lost-my-baby Latin blues of “Heart Won’t Tell a Lie” and mines plenty of familiar terrain from there on out, including the smooth brotherly vocal arrangements of “Staying With Me,” the philosophical big-picture lyricism of “The Way I Feel” and the swinging acoustic groove “Loving You Always.” Stick around for two unlisted bonus tracks, the soulful “There’s a War Tonight” and the grinning “Guero in the Barrio,” which is about as loose as Los Lonely Boys have ever sounded on disc.

Walter Becker, “Circus Money”
Steely Dan’s Walter Becker hasn’t exactly made a habit of solo albums, and considering the muted reaction to his last one, 14 years ago, you can’t say demand has overwhelmed supply. But “Circus Money” is an easy pleasure, 12 non-whack tracks mostly co-written by Becker and producer Larry Klein, energized by a reggae rhythm base. Singing may not be Becker’s forte, but neither is it a terrible liability on songs that display his penchant for trenchant scene-setting and character sketches. His once pitiless cynicism is now leavened by compassion, whether in the portrayal of a none-too-attractive barfly or the accumulation of precise details that give ’70s Philly soul romance “Downtown Canon” its heartbreaking authority. Inveterate Dan fans will be perked by “Paging Audrey,” which sounds like a “Royal Scam”-era idea given a fresh dust-off.

Vanessa Hudgens, “Identified”
“Last Night,” the first track of Disney star Vanessa Hudgens’ second full-length release, shows such promise. It’s a lightly produced bit of poppy blues in 5/4 time — somewhere between Christina Aguilera’s big-band phase and Bonnie Raitt’s 19-year-old acoustic twang — that Hudgens manages to pull off with some level of soul. First single “Sneakernight” is in a similar vein, with upright piano and an organ providing a smart backdrop for what is essentially a paean to hip-hop-style dance. The rest of “Identified,” though, panders to the preteen demo with stop-start pop that ranges from pleasant (the title track) to dull (”Amazed”) to off-putting (“Hook It Up”). But for little girls, it’s a nonstop sing-along.

Gerald Albright, “Sax for Stax”
On this follow-up to his 2006 Peak debut, “New Beginnings,” Gerald Albright salutes legendary Memphis soul label Stax. But the sax guru does more than simply toot out contemporary Muzak facsimiles of such classics as “Knock on Wood” and “Cheaper to Keep Her.” Rhythmically intertwining his jazz and R&B roots within fresh, creative arrangements, Albright brings a welcome snap, crackle and pop to the proceedings. He adopts a big-band approach on Isaac Hayes’ obscure 1972 single “Theme From ‘The Men’,” then sways Latin on the Dramatics’ “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” (with guest Philip Bailey). And Albright’s emotive horn paired with Ledisi’s killer vocals ratchet the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” to another level.

Earlimart, “Hymn and Her”
In keeping with the lo-fi nature of 2007’s “Mentor Tormentor,” Earlimart, the twosome of Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray, issues another set of dreamy, rainy-day tunes with “Hymn and Her.” The songs are bathed in warm, rich textures and Espinoza’s and Murray’s soft, breathy vocals, as the album moves from pop (the lightly chugging “Song For,” “For the Birds”) to wistful slow numbers (the Grandaddy-esque “Face Down in the Wrong Town,” the string-laced title track) and grittier rock (“Teeth”). Little on “Hymn and Her” finds Earlimart venturing into new territory, but the familiarity is comforting, and sometimes that’s just enough.

Free Kitten, “Inherit”
“Inherit” is the first we’ve heard from Free Kitten — the New York noise-rock supergroup featuring Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz and Yoshimi P-We of Boredoms — since 1997, and if there’s one thing these women haven’t been doing in the past decade, it’s devising ways to break into the indie-rock mainstream. For the most part they explore the fuzziest, most freewheeling extremes of their sound here, rarely offering up anything as conventional as a catchy vocal hook or a memorable guitar riff. Three tracks extend beyond the six-minute mark, with “Monster Eye” stretching to 11:32. Their technically adventurous playing occasionally gathers spooky steam, but this is a fans-only affair.

Rose Hill Drive, “Moon is the New Earth”
Like this Colorado trio’s self-titled 2006 debut, “Moon Is the New Earth” is unapologetically retro and pleasantly alluring, a sonic palette of classic-sounding touchstones. Rose Hill Drive stitches together its influences with greater assurance and a slightly lighter touch than on the earlier album, and with more room for the Sproul brothers’ tight vocal harmonies. Those are showcased particularly on such tracks as “My Light” and the we-know-the-answer query “Do You Wanna Get High?” The galloping “I’m On to You” blends classic- and punk-rock attacks into a seamless garage epic, while “The 8th Wonder” brings a stoner component to the mix and “One Night Stand” sounds like a lost Paul McCartney track from the beginning of his post-Beatles career

Various Artists, “Chosen Few III: The Move”
Boy Wonder brings back his Latin urban franchise for a third installment, and it’s a good indication of where the genre is going. Far less reggaeton-heavy than the last “Chosen Few,” this collection contains much more hip-hop and features collaborations with the likes of Rick Ross, Jim Jones, Cassidy and Twista, among others. This release shows off the more electronic dance influences that are taking precedence over reggaeton’s trademark drumbeat. That’s a good thing, as are some standout moments: the lightning-quick rhyme-spitting by Reychesta Secret Weapon on “If You Don’t Know Who I Be,” the cool smarminess of Dalmata on “Amiga” and the album’s dark, sweeping ensemble opener, “Vas a Ver.” As compilations tend to be, it’s a mixed bag, but kudos to Boy Wonder for curating and packaging new sounds.

© 2013 Billboard

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