Ashlee Simpson, “Bittersweet World”Ashlee Simpson trades in guitar pop for a few Timbaland-assisted dance beats in her follow-up to 2005’s “I Am Me.” The hitmaker adds his touch to the dark, hypnotic groove of “Murder,” the Pat Benatar-like fist-pumper “Rule Breaker” and the manic “Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya).” Elsewhere, Simpson goes the cheeky Fergie route with “Boys,” disses teasing girls on “Hot Stuff” and tries out a piano ballad on “Never Dream Alone,” with mixed results. “Bittersweet World” is a party worth attending, but not much is missed if your invite got lost in the mail.
Flight of the Conchords, “Flight of the Conchords”This self-titled debut album by HBO’s kiwi wunderkinds is an intelligently playful parody romp through about 10 genres in 15 tracks. Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie set themselves apart from trashy pop-culture comics with lyrics that employ childlike wonder rather than childish humor. Album highlights “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros” and “Ladies of the World” lean on refreshing goofiness rather than offensiveness. There’s something slightly missing for the listener who’s seen them live or watched the show, as part of their charm is definitely in the visual delivery (and the spontaneous keytar solos). But the lyrics hold their own as comedy poetry, and the album as a whole is stuffed with feel-good laughs.
Jeff Healy, “Mess of Blues”Before his untimely death in March, Canadian blues guitarist Jeff Healey had been quite involved in jazz via band the Jazz Wizards (he played trumpet and clarinet). But he tracked this blues-rock CD in late 2007, and it’s an outstanding farewell. The disc opens with a furious cover of “I’m Torn Down,” followed by an equally formidable run through “How Blue Can You Get.” It’s a genuine pleasure to hear Healey’s fluid, incisive lead guitar again, and his bandmates are rock solid. Outside the lines, Healey also works a sturdy cover of the Band’s “The Weight” and a fine version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.”
Phil Vassar, “Prayer of a Common Man”Nashville veteran Phil Vassar’s delayed fourth studio set was well worth the wait, with some of his most evocative songs brought to life by even richer arrangements and production. A piano man in a twangy guitar world, Vassar’s instrument of choice gives each of these dozen songs a full-bodied foundation. There are rowdy rockers (“Around Here Somewhere,” “Baby Rocks”) and more reflective pieces (“My Chevrolet,” “Crazy Life”), but the bulk of the songs muse about relationships, cars, late fathers and rockin’ girlfriends (or wives).
Bennie Maupin, “Early Reflections”While veteran multireeds player Bennie Maupin has enjoyed a rich history performing in bands led by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he’s also a potent leader in his own right, as evidenced on “Early Reflections.” A passionate outing of rumination and whimsy in the company of an all-Polish trio, the album serves up melodic gems by Maupin on tenor and soprano sax and alto flute, half of which develop fully in the two- to four-minute range. He’s playful on “Inside the Shadows,” soulful on the happy-go-lucky “Prophet’s Motifs,” swinging on the sprightly “Black Ice” and hushed on the gentle “Within Reach.” Best of the bunch: the slow dance “Escondido,” which Maupin delivers with earthy bass clarinet clarity, and two tunes featuring Hania Chowaniec-Rybka improvising wordless vocals in the mix.
The Night Marchers, “See You in Magic”This new San Diego-based quartet is led by singer/guitarist John “Speedo” Reis, long a familiar figure in punk circles thanks to his work with Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes and Rocket From the Crypt, whose live CD/DVD package from earlier this year closed the book on one of America’s most undersung rock acts. On their debut, the Night Marchers cook at a lower temperature than did RFTC, with slower tempos and fewer punkabilly guitar freakouts; perhaps this is the sound of a black-leather lifer mellowing with age. But even if it’s easy to miss the full-tilt pyrotechnics of yore, Reis’ new approach allows you to appreciate his wound-tight tunecraft like never before. Dig the soul-punk shuffle of “You’ve Got Nerve” for proof of his continued vitality.
Blind Melon, “For My Friends”Blind Melon’s new album comprises the band’s first new songs since the death of singer Shannon Hoon in 1995. With new singer Travis Warren onboard, the group has tried to recapture the magic that made it a pop/rock darling in the early ’90s. The effort is not a failure by any means, but while the rest of the band remains intact, “For My Friends” doesn’t sound much like the Blind Melon Hoon left 13 years ago. Warren, though, is a very capable replacement; he sings in an upper register that fits well with the group’s jammy country-rock sound, and occasionally sounds eerily like Hoon. And at times, it all clicks, like on “Sometimes,” a funky, organ-driven rocker. But there’s nothing here that quite approaches the peaks of first-era Blind Melon.
Billy Bragg, “Mr. Love & Justice”On his 11th album, the notable left-winger embraces the right-wing mantra of choice. Buy this double-disc set and you get to choose between full-service band versions or raw solo interpretations of its 12 excellent songs. But then, Billy Bragg has always done a fine job of being all things to all men. As the title suggests, “Mr. Love & Justice” sees equal measure placed upon affairs of state (“Sing Their Souls Back Home,” “O Freedom”) and the heart (“M for Me,” “Something Happened”), resulting in his most satisfying original collection since 1991’s “Don’t Try This at Home.”