Damien Rice, “Live at Fingerprints — Warts and All”Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice is always a captivating performer, so a live offering holds a lot of potential. Sadly, this in-store set, recorded in November 2006 at Fingerprints in Long Beach, Calif., is a short and bittersweet album that presents only a cursory glance at what Rice is capable of. But there’s a sincere, in-the-room feel to “Cannonball,” which pairs delicate strumming with Rice’s fragile vocals, as well as “Volcano” and the hauntingly beautiful “Grey Room.” Others, such as “Coconut Skins,” don’t quite capture the spirit of the original, and while the stripped-down, keyboard-led “Rootless Tree” lacks the aggression of the album version, it doesn’t quite make up for it in intimacy.
Amanda Shaw, “Pretty Runs Out”
Teenage New Orleans fiddle prodigy and sometime Disney actress Amanda Shaw shows no interest in stodgy roots purism, and good for her. She covered the Ramones, the Clash and Hank Williams on her super-cute self-released 2004 album, “I’m Not a Bubble Gum Pop Princess,” and her nationally distributed debut is just as adventurous. She interprets Jack Johnson and Diane Warren, and tries out wobbly bilingual bayou R&B, go-go-beat brass-band playground chants, spiteful power-chord blues, pub-rocked teenybop new wave and borderline Goth hard rock. Her specialty, though, is more traditionally jiggy barn dances and Cajun two-steps, with a reeling forward motion all their own. And the sweet-16 roughness of her vocal twang could pass for Rachel Sweet in 1979.
Kate Nash, “Made of Bricks”Kate Nash opens her debut album by cooing “I like to play” over gauzy loops and burps. It’s an apt introduction to a playful, wickedly clever set of songs that helped “Made of Bricks” debut at No. 1 in the United Kingdom and earn Nash ubiquitous salutations as the next Lily Allen. Her style does resemble Allen’s light melodic touch and frank lyricism, albeit with a slightly broader emotional range and a subtly textural musical approach built around piano and incorporating well-deployed touches of guitars, strings and the occasional synthesizer. “Foundations” and “Mouthwash” establish her man-smashing credentials, but “Birds,” “Nicest Thing” and ”Pumpkin Soup” open a keyhole to the vulnerable romantic beneath them.
Marah, “Angels of Destruction”Despite being billed as a post-rehab collection about redemption, there is a thread of glorious, edge-of-the-world chaos running through Marah’s sixth album. The Brooklyn-via-Philadelphia band has developed a reputation as a stellar live act, but its records are often hit-and-miss affairs. With this new collection, however, Marah manages to convey the manic energy that makes it such a great performer, and the result is its best album yet. Opener “Coughing Up Blood” sets the mood: The instruments whirl and collide while frontman David Bielanko sings about loss and joy. “Angels on a Passing Train” spins a yarn about being filled with rage while managing to sound upbeat and excited. The rest of the record is full of propulsive, twangy rockers that sound like early Bruce Springsteen or an unbuttoned, pumped-full-of-happy-pills Wilco. Sobering up and getting straight never sounded like so much fun.
Eliane Elias, “Something For You: Eliane Elias Plays and Sings Bill Evans”Brazilian pianist/vocalist Eliane Elias returns to Blue Note after a seven-year hiatus with this wonderful tribute to Bill Evans. Elias cut 16 tunes backed by husband/bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron, and the variety of interpretive approaches is, in itself, a highlight. Some are terrific trio instrumentals, such as “You and the Night and the Music,” ”Five” and “Blue in Green,” while solo efforts “I Love My Wife” and “For Nenette” highlight Elias’ keyboard virtuosity. She delivers several vocal performances, including a lovely rendition of “Here Is Something for You,” a wholly simpatico “Minha” (one of the only Brazilian songs Evans performed) and a very cool cover of “Detour Ahead.”
Various artists, “Def Jam Sessions Vol. 1”The concept is intriguing: a collection featuring outtakes or rarities associated with hit albums from such Def Jam stars as Nas, Ne-Yo, Bobby Valentino, Method Man and Rihanna. But beyond Rihanna’s “Cry,” which is a nice complement to ”Unfaithful,” there aren’t many tracks here that would have appreciably improved their parent albums. In other words, they’re satisfactory, but they aren’t hits. Ne-Yo’s “Spotlight” has a cute, flute-driven melody, while Nas’ 2006 one-off “Where Y’All At” has a tasty chopped and looped hook. The more typical ”Chirp Back” by Fabolous, featuring Bleu Davinci, samples the patience-testing, chirping Nextel phone sound. Diehard fans will enjoy these “Sessions,” but the casual listener will demand the originals.
Matthew West, “Something To Say”Nashville-based singer-songwriter Matthew West has penned tunes for Rascal Flatts, Natalie Grant, Mandisa and Billy Ray Cyrus, but he saved the best for himself. Fully recovered from vocal problems, he sounds more compelling than ever. “You Are Everything” is off to a great start on Christian adult contemporary radio, while “The Motions” is a powerful song about living life with purpose and passion. “Save a Place for Me” is a gorgeous ballad that really demonstrates the warmth and personality in West’s voice, and “Moment of Truth” explores a life in turmoil, wrestling with a crisis of faith. West does indeed have something to say, and listeners will find themselves moved by his revelations.
Rivers Cuomo, “Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo”Weezer is given to long stretches of hiatus, but frontman/Harvard alumnus Rivers Cuomo remains a prolific songwriter and demo-maker. Prefacing a new band album expected this year, Cuomo gathered some of what’s said to be hundreds of unreleased recordings into this elaborately annotated compendium, stretching from before Weezer’s 1994 debut to 2004’s “I Was Made for You,” the most fully realized of these 18 tracks. The project is, by nature, an indulgence, but fans of Cuomo and Weezer will gleefully dig into the slower and clunkier (but wholly familiar) demo version of “Buddy Holly,” covers of Dion’s “Little Diane” (recorded with Sloan), Ice Cube’s “The Bomb,” a then-unknown Gregg Alexander’s “The World We Love So Much” and five tunes slated for “Songs From the Black Hole,” the abandoned conceptual follow-up to Weezer’s debut album. Like Cuomo himself, “Alone” is quirky, but also an intriguing glimpse into one artist’s creative process.