The Black Crowes, “Warpaint”When Chris Robinson sings “Hallelujah, come join the jubilee” on album opener “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” it’s an invitation Black Crowes fans consider overdue. “Warpaint” is the group’s first new studio album in seven years, and somehow it’s more energetic and focused than anything since, perhaps, 1994’s “Amorica.” “Warpaint” mines the same Allmans-to-Zappa synthesis of influences that has been the Crowes’ stock in trade but finds the group fortified by sharp songwriting and lace-tight, live-sounding performances. The Crowes remain loud and proud proponents of psychedelic trippiness on “Daughters,” “Whoa Mule” and “Wounded Bird,” and dig into some gritty grooves on “Walk Believer Walk,” “Evergreen” and a spirited cover of the Rev. Charlie Jackson’s “God’s Got It.” The 11-song set establishes the group’s return as something to crow about.
Ashton Shepherd, “Sounds So Good”There are debut albums, and then there are debut albums that serve notice that the landscape has changed. Twenty-one-year-old Alabama native Ashton Shepherd and producer Buddy Cannon have delivered the latter. Unabashedly country in production and theme, the set is refreshing, authentic and delightfully un-PC. Liquor? Lots of it. Heartache? Check. Dirt roads? Several. Single “Takin’ Off This Pain” is destined to be an anthem for women fed up with relationships going nowhere. “I Ain’t Dead Yet” finds the singer balancing motherhood and marriage with a night out on the town, while “Not Right Now” embraces “a pint of Crown and a country sound.”
Bauhaus, “Go Away White”Recorded in 18 days, some tracks in one take, Bauhaus’ fifth studio album proves that even a quarter-century’s hiatus can’t kill a great band, especially if it was undead to begin with. There’s no trickery here — apart from the sinister seduction of Peter Murphy’s ever-deepening Transylvanian croon — and the bare, live style makes the band’s heirs even more apparent. There’s PJ Harvey in David J’s swamp-blues bass; Nirvana in the shrieking, submerged guitar of Daniel Ash. But the quartet doesn’t compose or perform like elder statesmen: “International Bullet Proof Talent” and “Endless Summer of the Damned” are as spry and visceral as its first material. If the band had released a bunch of meandering albums during the past 25 years, you might call “Go Away White” a return to form. Instead, it picks up right where Bauhaus left off: a wet dream for original fans and a blast of recognition for the newly eye-lined.
Michael McDonald, “Soul Speak”It’s not quite “Motown 3,” but Michael McDonald is certainly taking his time transitioning back to making new music. “Soul Speak” features 11, well, soulful covers from his personal favorites, along with a trio of new songs that hold their own amidst their formidable surroundings. Highlights include a winning, sultry take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and subtle versions of Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” while a too-lush treatment of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is the only outright miss. McDonald maintains the soulful mood on the album’s original songs, too.
Gutter Twins, “Saturnalia”The Gutter Twins’ Sub Pop debut, “Saturnalia,” is teeming with the kind of raw and gritty music one might expect to hear kicked around in, well, the gutter. And considering that the project is a collaboration between indie vets Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, that’s certainly not a bad thing. There’s something ominous and satanic that possesses the guitar riffs scrawling all over “Idle Hands,” and that spirit is channeled elsewhere on “All Misery/Flowers” and the haunting “Front Street.” Hints of blues rock infuse “The Stations” and electronic flourishes highlight “Each to Each,” as Lanegan’s brooding baritone and Dulli’s mellow tenor muse on the absurdities of love. “I tell you my story, so that you might save me,” Lanegan intones on “All Misery,” and while he may never find the salvation he’s seeking, he can rest assured there’s someone down here in the dinginess listening.
Markus James, “Snakeskin Violin”A handful of American artists have explored the connection between West African music and American blues, but Markus James has lived this connection for the past seven years (and four albums). “Snakeskin Violin” continues his profound world blues passage. Working, as usual, with several Malian players, including Hassi Sare (njarka violin), Mamadou Sidibe (calabash, vocals), Vieux Farka Toure (cadence guitar) and Mama Sissoko (n’goni), James laid down tracks in Mali, California and Mississippi. His songs radiate a dark, nearly forbidding glow, while his sparse, shadowy arrangements cut a groove that draws deeply from the hypnotic vibe of Malian music. “All That You Can’t Keep,” “Exile Tracks” and “I Won’t Let It” are extremely distinctive pieces, driven by a seductive rhythmic circularity that’s a keystone of Malian traditional tunes and Delta blues.
Jim White, “Transnormal Skiperoo”Jim White narrated the 2004 film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” an insightful peek at the often dark place where music and religion meet in the rural South. But the title here is meant to describe his recent bouts with contentment. With accompaniment as varied as vocals from Ollabelle and Brazilian percussion from Mauro Refosco, White still keeps us off balance with rich, unpredictable textures that convey lost-in-the-backwoods disorientation. He’s also a compelling storyteller who uses words and minor chords to empathize with a troubled spirit. But White’s new near-happiness can’t be denied on “Turquoise House,” about a man who has found comfort in his nonconformity.
Marcus Miller, “Marcus 3”Most largely instrumental jazz albums lose their appeal after the 50-minute mark. Notwithstanding its four R&B-style vocal tracks (including a winning rendition of Deniece Williams’ “Free” by Corinne Bailey Rae), Marcus Miller’s zesty CD has adrenaline to spare at the close of its 70-plus-minute funk-jazz marathon, when he speeds across the finish line with a B3-fueled take on Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?” “Marcus” is the eighth solo outing by Miles Davis’ final musical collaborator, and Miller’s high-in-the-mix bass forms the core. One of the highlights is the soulfully lyrical saunter through Davis’ “Jean Pierre,” co-starring Gregoire Maret on harmonica.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, “Real Emotional Trash”Stephen Malkmus has neatly kept all his parts in place on his fourth solo album: the languid lyrical nonsense, the obtuse stories that seem to go nowhere until they do (sometimes), the once-again-lengthy compositions and the ’70s-pop-prog trickery. (OK, that’s new.) They’re all so intact, in fact, that “Real Emotional Trash” feels often calculated and a little drifty, which is probably the point. Janet Weiss adds welcome flavor on drums and vocals, but overall, how much you enjoy rummaging through this “Trash” will probably depend on the amount of patience you have for Malkmus’ indulgences.