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Jewel, Aimee Mann, Weezer have new CDs

Also, new releases from Ashanti, Jakob Dylan, Disturbed, Fleet Foxes
/ Source: Billboard

Jewel, “Perfectly Clear”Jewel has been a pop chart fixture since 1995, but organically rooted, making her move to country a convincing transition. Her seventh album and first full-length country project, “Perfectly Clear,” is not only persuasive, but down-home, old-school country. It’s not just the addition of steel guitar that sells Jewel’s passage, but the whole of her delivery and lyrical themes. Potential hits abound: Best are the searching, chug-along “I Do”; remorseful ballad “Everything Reminds Me of You”; the uptempo, playful “Rosey and Mick,” about a long-term imperfect relationship; and the mannered “Anyone but You,” which sounds like a Tammy Wynette classic. Jewel continues to surprise and inspire.

Aimee Mann, “+.%&! Smilers”After 2005 concept album “The Forgotten Arm” was poorly received, Amy Mann is back to writing stand-alone pop songs, and the result is her most compelling album to date. As a writer and performer of lovelorn, piano- and guitar-driven pop music, Mann stands with the best of her era. She can sum up universal relationship complications in three-minute, eminently hummable musical nuggets. Cases in point: smoldering love song ”True Believer”; the earnest, string-laden ballad “It’s Over”; and “Columbus Avenue,” where a street serves as metaphor for an ex’s downfall. On album standout “Phoenix,” an elegantly turned melody accompanies a singer still working things out in her head as the highway takes her farther from a misguided lover.

Weezer, “Weezer (The Red Album)”Kicking off its newest album with its own ripped-off riff is the first of many acts of defiance on this self-titled set, distinguished by its red cover. The intro chords of opener “Troublemaker” instantly evoke the similar intro to “The Good Life” from 1996’s “Pinkerton”; the snarkiness isn’t a surprise from mastermind Rivers Cuomo, who has never particularly cared about anyone’s expectations. To wit, “Pork and Beans” is supposedly a response to the band being told by label bigwigs that the album lacked a hit single; lo and behold, it’s been No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart for four straight weeks. Elsewhere, Cuomo turns the mic over to the other three members of Weezer for a song each (the best: “Automatic,” sung by drummer Pat Wilson), unironically salutes the influence of Nirvana (“Heart Songs”) and marries fake crowd noise and piano to the thick power chords of “Greatest Man.” Rock on.

Ashanti, “The Declaration”As the title suggests, “The Declaration” is in many ways about womanhood and empowerment, which is why Ashanti chose to work with producers and collaborators outside the Inc. family. On the synthy, Darkchild-produced “So Over You,” Ashanti croons about getting past a former relationship, while the Jermaine Dupri-mixed “Good Good,” featuring elements of Michael Jackson’s “The Girl Is Mine,” finds her confidently belting about her abilities to please in bed. Ashanti continues to celebrate her femininity on tracks like the sensual, Robin Thicke-assisted “Things You Make Me Do” and the bass-heavy ”Girlfriend.” “Mother” is inspired by Ashanti’s close bond with her own mother, and “Shine” is aimed at motivating young women

Jakob Dylan, “Seeing Things”With the Wallflowers on hiatus, Jakob Dylan abandons slick adult rock for spare, man-with-guitar balladry on his Rick Rubin-produced solo debut. Firmly rooted in blues and folk, the 10 acoustic-based songs have a warm, rustic, old-time-y feel, but stark meditations like “Evil Is Alive and Well” and “War Is Kind” are very much about the present moment. On the Springsteen-esque standout “Valley of the Low Sun,” a soothing melody speaks to a nation tired of being at war, while the sweet country blues of “Something Good This Way Comes” chases picture-perfect Americana, albeit with an aching smile. Under Rubin’s direction, Dylan’s laid-back rasp, often laced with smoky harmonies, gains weight and texture. Raw and compelling, the album is a huge leap forward for him as a songwriter.

Disturbed, “Indestructible”A motorcycle accident, a garage fire at his home and lots of romantic turmoil fuel Disturbed frontman David Draiman’s frustrations on this fierce diatribe of a record. It dabbles in politics, rails against conformity and, on the downright frightening single “Inside the Fire,” finds the singer grappling with a suicide solution that’s encouraged by Satan himself. The group backs it up with a forceful sonic fusillade that recalls Disturbed’s 2000 debut, “The Sickness,” while doing away with some of the melodic niceties that crept into ”Ten Thousand Fists” and 2002’s “Believe.” It does, however, retain a taut, grooving sensibility that gives guitarist Dan Donegan plenty of room for heretofore unexplored heroics.

Grupo Fantasma, “Sonidos Gold”Playing with Prince at his two-month Las Vegas residency may be the ultimate stamp of approval for a backing band. But Austin-based orchestra Grupo Fantasma has its own artistic statement to make on this album of cumbias, Latin funk jams, tropical descargas and psychedelia. Not surprisingly, the joy here is the live-show energy the band brings to a variety of Latin styles. One can almost picture brass-heavy opener “El Sabio Soy Yo” and modern grupero-style “Levantate” being played in a cantina — until they blast off in their own funkified, genre-breaking directions. For those who enjoy hook-driven songs in addition to jam sessions, those catchy anchors are there, too, making “Sonidos Gold” accessible to more than just the cool heads.

Pinetop Perkins, “Pinetop Perkins and Friends”Pinetop Perkins has been performing blues music longer than most of us have been alive, so it’s safe to assume that when he releases a new album it has depth and savvy. The title, “Pinetop Perkins and Friends,” is self-explanatory; the friends include Eric Clapton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Eric Sardinas. The nine tunes are standards with long histories of their own. Clapton sits in on “How Long Blues/Come Back Baby,” a medley featuring Perkins and Nora Jean Brusco on vocals. Brusco’s voice is full-strength blues, Perkins’ piano is especially tasty, and Clapton’s comping is as incisive as his solo. “Look on Yonders Wall,” is an exceptionally hip cover of this classic 12-bar shuffle, with Jimmie Vaughan handling the lead guitar chores in convincing fashion.

Fleet Foxes, “Fleet Foxes”One of the most valuable qualities of good music is its ability to transport you to a moment in your past, a place you’ll never see or somewhere that doesn’t even exist. Thanks to their gloriously retro (and occasionally eerie) three-part harmonies, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes accomplish all the above with their self-titled debut. Led by vocalist Robin Pecknold, those harmonies usher in a remote, parallel-universe America that lies far from the interstate — maybe somewhere in Appalachia — where contemporary music sounds a lot like a doped-up daydream at church.