Franz Ferdinand, “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand”Since Franz Ferdinand’s emergence in 2004, it has owned the field of smart, energetic dance-rock epitomized by singles like “Take Me Out.” Rumblings that its third studio album, “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand,” would be heavily influenced by reggae and dub music presented the prospect of an intriguing fusion. But these influences play only supporting roles here, on such songs as the engaging, strutty “Ulysses,” the urgent yet melodic “Send Him Away” and the resonant “Can’t Stop Feeling.” While it would have been interesting to hear a further evolution of the band’s sound, the album offers plenty of adrenaline, pheromones and stealthy sophistication, thanks to Bob Hardy’s driving bass, Alex Kapranos’ expressive crooning and the band’s unusual ability to make every song sound like a single. Of special note is “Katherine Kiss Me,” an acoustic ballad about an alleyway hookup and a perfectly timed comedown from the rest of the album’s sustained high.
Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel, “Willie and the Wheel”Decades in the making, this collection of swing classics as interpreted by Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel doesn’t disappoint. First proposed to Nelson 30 years ago by Jerry Wexler, the set came to fruition just before Wexler, who executive-produced the album, died in August. While it can be dangerous to cover classics, Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson and the top-notch players do a fine job. Highlights include Nelson’s push and pull with Asleep at the Wheel’s Elizabeth McQueen on “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” and the instrumental “South,” first a hit in 1927, which features Paul Shaffer on piano and Vince Gill on electric guitar. The set is so authentic that one almost feels guilty listening to it on modern speakers instead of seated around the old Victrola.
Dierks Bentley, “Feel That Fire”Both a Grand Ole Opry member and a U2 fan, Dierks Bentley is the epitome of the modern country star, and his star is on the rise. His exceptional new album has plenty of sex and senoritas, but also a higher calling on the uplifting “It’s a Beautiful World,” a duet with Patti Griffin. The title cut and first single is an accurate portrayal of a complex woman’s psyche, while “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes” finds Bentley growling his way through a welcome advance. “I Can’t Forget Her,” with its decidedly Southwestern feel and fine storytelling, would make Marty Robbins proud. “Last Call” with Ronnie McCoury is a rollicking bluegrass romp, and “Here She Comes” is a high-octane burner a la Garth Brooks’ “Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Come Up).”
Brighton Port Authority, “I Think We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”Nobody did party music for the dot-com boom years quite like Fatboy Slim, aka DJ/producer Norman Cook. After five years of relative silence, Cook bursts back with Brighton Port Authority, a project that liberates him from the “electronic dance artist” identity crisis and allows his production talents to shine. He and studio partner Simon Thornton team with a dozen singer-songwriters, from Iggy Pop to Justin Robertson to Martha Wainwright, on a swaggering set of proper pop songs that never cross the four-and-a-half-minute mark. The Fatboy trademarks are here (acid squelches, ska guitars, choppy oceans of synth), but they’re blended with the unique musicality of each guest. The set is reminiscent in spirit of Mark Ronson’s “Version” (Wainwright even sounds positively Winehouse-ian on “Spade”), but it’s even better because the songs are new.
Al Di Meola & World Sinfonia, “La Melodia”Fusion-turned-world music guitarist Al Di Meola has long carried a torch for tango, primarily for the late master and personal mentor Astor Piazzolla. “La Melodia” showcases Di Meola and his World Sinfonia band feasting on pieces like Piazzolla’s “Cafe 1930” and “Double Concerto.” Fausto Beccalossi’s accordion lends the album a romantic air, whether it’s nimbly skipping alongside the guitars on crowd-pleaser “Mediterranean Sundance” or softly waffling notes for Ennio Morricone’s sunset ballad “Cinema Paradiso.” Alas, although the musicians’ performances are beyond reproach, extended playing times and repetitious compositions will render this an album for Di Meola purists unless newcomers are willing to lend a discerning ear. Dramatic turns like the honking intro of “Double Concerto” or the pensive melody of Andrea Parodi’s “Umbras,” however, do give the album more flair.
Mariza, “Terra”Portuguese fadista Mariza has become a celebrated artist well beyond her father’s fado house in Lisbon. On her latest project, the choice of material mirrors Mariza’s burgeoning world audience. She offers several gorgeous fado numbers and reaches beyond her traditional repertoire. For those who fancy fado, “Ja Me Deixou” and “Rosa Branca” are straight from the traditional canon and performed here with bravura. Mariza also unearthed a never-published poem by David Mourae-Ferreira and has given it new life as a fado number called “Recurso.” Chucho Valdes adds some Cuban flavor to the Portuguese folk piece “Fronteira,” and Mariza sings a wonderful arrangement of a Cape Verdean morna, “Beijo de Saudade,” with Tito Paris. A bonus track delivers the pleasant surprise of Mariza performing the Charlie Chaplin tune “Smile” in English.
The Fray, “The Fray”As the Fray’s sophomore album winds to a close, frontman Isaac Slade announces that “all is not well” — reflecting the mood of these 10 tracks. “The Fray” is a more angst-filled and melancholy set than you’d expect from a group following a double-platinum debut. But the songs about lost love and tortured souls hew close to the melodic, piano-driven pop of 2005’s “How to Save a Life.” Choruses swell on “Syndicate” and “You Found Me,” the album’s first single. The airily upbeat “Where the Story Ends” nods to Coldplay, and a trio of songs — the gentle “Ungodly Hour,” the fuzzy-grooved “We Build Then We Break” and the subtly building “Happiness” — bring the album to a powerful, emotionally rich close.
Damon Fowler, “Sugar Shack” After three self-released albums, Florida native Damon Fowler makes his Blind Pig debut with this notable project. Fowler oscillates between country, electric blues and Americana. He’s a formidable slide guitar player, has mastered lap steel and dobro as well as electric guitar, and his playing throughout the album is deft. Indeed, Fowler may be so skillful that he prefers pickin’ tasty to larger-than-life guitar heroics. Fowler wrote nine of the 12 tunes on the album, and his original material is solid. Check his slow burner “I Hope It’s Gonna Rain,” highlighted by a judicious guitar solo.