Jessica Simpson, “Do You Know”After she scored nine pop hits between 1999 and 2006, top 40 radio gave Jessica Simpson the heave-ho. Now the singer has shifted formats to country, which she insists is an organic fit, given her Texas roots — not to mention her film role as Daisy Duke in 2005’s “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Full-length foray “Do You Know” is a credible transition, beginning with No. 18 launch single “Come On Over,” which convinced programmers that there’s twang in Simpson’s torch. She aligns with Grammy Award-winning producers Brett James — an ideal fit via collaborations with Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood — and John Shanks, who has worked with, well, everyone. Despite detractors, Simpson remains a gifted vocalist who delivers on most every cut. Soaring midtempo “Remember That,” lamenting power ballad “Still Don’t Stop Me” and the title track, which features Dolly Parton, are all prime contenders.
New Kids on the Block, “The Block”The New Kids’ comeback album contains songs like “Grown Man,” “Big Girl Now” and “Put It on My Tab,” designed to deliver the message that they’re no longer the fresh-faced tweens on your pre-algebra notebook. But when one of them sings, “Let’s try every position,” on “Sexify My Love,” it’s hard not to smirkify your face. Sure, the New Kids deserve a shot at a reunion as much as anyone. But unless you’re holding the album cover you’d have no way of knowing who these singers are, so completely have the Kids been filtered through the Usher Machine. Most of “The Block” is a reasonable enough approximation of faceless club pop, complete with standard-issue guest stars (the Pussycat Dolls, Timbaland) and out-of-left-field rap bridges. When the Kids hit the road this fall, songs from “The Block” will do little more than provide nostalgia-craving fans a chance to check their BlackBerrys.
Kimya Dawson, “Alphabutt”“Juno” made Kimya Dawson something of a voice for the teen gestalt, but her latest effort plays to a younger set. “Alphabutt” is a children’s album, 15 songs in 27 minutes that have a breezy, unconditional innocence and more than a little silliness. There are plenty of rectal references (“G is for gorilla fart/H is for huge gorilla fart,” she sings in the title track, while “Pee-Pee in the Potty” is an a cappella ode to just that) but also simple slices of everyday life that have their own kind of poignancy. Whether it’s a trip to visit extended family (“Uncle Hukee’s House”), an examination of a sock and underwear drawer (“Seven Hungry Tigers”) or an agenda-setting song to a child (“I Love You Sweet Baby”), there’s always a cheery countenance amid lo-fi arrangements that sound like they were recorded in the family rec room.
Spearhead, “All Rebel Rockers”Michael Franti spent the past few years documenting the chaos in the Middle East, penning a children’s book and, with 2006’s “Yell Fire!,” stoking the kind of pointed political fire for which he’s become so well-known. Like “Yell Fire!,” this set was tracked in Jamaica with go-to producers Sly & Robbie and is as much of a dub- and soul-infused party record as Franti has ever delivered. Sure, he’s incapable of keeping politics out of his voice, but tracks like “A Little Bit of Riddim,” “Life in the City” and the soaring first single “Hey World (Remote Control Version)” are aimed squarely at the feet rather than the heart. The second half tends to meander en route to a crisp acoustic finale called “Have a Little Faith,” but the killer tracks here — and there are many — make for Franti’s sweatiest recent arguments that hope springs eternal.
Gym Class Heroes, “The Quilt”Gospel soul hoedowns, hip-pop radio nuggets, brassy ska rides, melodic narrative ballads: Just call Gym Class Heroes your Swiss Army band. United behind Travis McCoy, who rhymes like Eminem with an arts school degree, the band is reminiscent of everything but atypical of nothing. On sophomore effort “The Quilt,” the act tops 2006’s gold-selling “As Cruel As Children,” conjuring Sublime one minute (“Blinded by the Soul”), Chris Brown the next (“Cookie Jar”) and then reverently summoning Hall & Oates’ Daryl Hall to contribute vocals (“Live Forever”). Everyone plays a part, including inspired guests like Estelle and Busta Rhymes, but the real star is McCoy, who’s got the lyrical wit, natural showmanship and effortless mystique of a superstar. If it all seems messy, it isn’t. GCH sounds like an American utopia, where everyone coexists joyfully and thrives on the diversity.
Patty Loveless, “Sleepless Nights”In lesser hands this collection of country classics might have been badly mishandled, but in the willing arms of traditionalist extraordinaire Patty Loveless and producer/husband Emory Gordy Jr., the past is brought to new life. Loveless wisely doesn’t try to mimic the originals, but she doesn’t stray too far either, which makes for a comfortable yet fresh listening experience. While the highlights include a feminine turn on the Dickey Lee-penned “He Thinks I Still Care” (famously done by George Jones as “She Thinks I Still Care”), the steel guitar-laden and mournful “Crazy Arms” and Vince Gill’s luscious harmony on the title track, which harks back to past vocal intertwining with Loveless, every cut is a newly mined gem in its own right. Especially tantalizing is her acoustic and raw turn on Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.”
Eric Benet, “Love & Life”Despite the radio-friendly “Pretty Baby” and “I Wanna Be Loved,” Eric Benet’s last album, “Hurricane,” was an inconsistent disappointment. But fans, especially those of the female persuasion, will rejoice when they hear the R&B singer/songwriter regain his footing on “Love & Life.” His fourth album is rooted in the classic R&B of the ’70s — stimulated by a contemporary blend of gospel, jazz and Latin rhythms and the same passionate tenor behind 1999 No. 1 R&B hit “Spend My Life With You.” He channels that romantic fervor on “You’re the Only One.” Then he goes deep on the sensual “The Hunger” and “Chocolate Legs,” a seductively reverent homage to females’ healing power. He tackles his own ups and downs on the frankly personal “Still I Believe” and steps into groove mode on “Weekend Girl” and “Iminluvwichoo.”