The Jonas Brothers, “A Little Bit Longer”You get the sense the Jonas Brothers can actually do the things they purport to do, like sing, play their instruments and even write music. That’s why it’s unfortunate that much of their sophomore effort is submerged in an ocean of heavy-handed production, so deep that the boys’ natural talents struggle to break the surface. But though there are epic keys, layers of acoustic and electric guitar and filtered synth zooms on nearly every track, the Jonases chomp on their 4/4 pop-rock like a veteran band. Young Nick sounds fresh out of the Justin Timberlake school of seduction on album opener “BB Good.” First single “Burnin’ Up” owes more than a little to Maroon 5; second single “Love Bug” goes from a campfire strum-along to a Steven Tyler rock wailer to power-punk in less than five minutes.
Irma Thomas, “Simply Grand”It’s been nearly 50 years since the Soul Queen of New Orleans’ first recording session, and during that time Irma Thomas has earned the nickname many times over. At 67, she still has a voice that’s a rare blend of smooth simplicity and heart-cracking emotion. The concept behind “Simply Grand” was to pair Thomas with a different star pianist on each track, and the results are mostly stunning. The virtuosic accompaniments occasionally draw too much attention from the singer, but for the most part they strike a perfect dramatic balance. Dr. John’s strong bass notes swell under Thomas’ sultry blues vocals on “Be You,” her low alto rolls expertly with David Egan’s complicated rhythm on gospel tune “Underground Stream,” and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” closes the set with a bittersweet touch.
Alice Cooper, “Along Came a Spider”Our favorite shock rocker returns to the conceptual realm on his 25th album, with a tale of a serial killer who wraps his victims in silk (that matches the color of their eyes, no less) and cuts off one leg to use in creating his own arachnoid appendage. “Spider” might not make you forget “Welcome to My Nightmare,” but it’s nevertheless a cheerfully twisted yarn delivered with a full-on dose of guitar rockers, the requisite ballad, a soaring anthem, a bit of Beck-flavored groovery (“Wake the Dead,” co-written by Ozzy Osbourne), some sly humor — see “(In Touch With) Your Feminine Side” — and nods to Cooper’s glam rock past. The tale ends with a terrific twist.
Howard Tate, “Blue Day”Blues man Howard Tate’s 1967 collaboration with producer/writer Jerry ‘Ragavoy, “Get It While You Can,” was a criminally overlooked gem. Tate brought his singular, soulful voice to a set of Ragavoy originals that saw some success on the R&B charts, but they were soon overwhlmed by covers from legendary artists (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt), eclipsing Tate’s formidable, definitive talents. Forty years later, after three “comeback projects” earlier this decade failed to do him justice, Tate has gotten material and production worthy of his strong-as-ever voice.
Denice Franke, “Gulf Coast Blue”On her third album, Denice Franke writes vivid, compelling musical short stories that adeptly blend empathy and danger. Many of the songs are set in Galveston, the Texas singer-songwriter’s adopted home. Franke’s detailing can be as specific as “Harley Girl,” a refreshingly tender appreciation of a biker woman and her guy. “Tara Lee” has you walking in the heels of a woman driven by her needs and desires, in search of a generous stranger while lamenting the tender roughneck missing from her life. Her lithe, mesmerizing voice and acoustic guitar are at the heart of each track, and Mark Hallman’s sympathetic production advances each song with bent electric guitar notes, percussion jabs or keyboard sounds.
Sidestepper, “The Buena Vibra Sound System”The Buena Vibra Sound System is Sidestepper founder Richard Blair’s Afro-Colombian brainstorm. The 11 tracks here represent the first taste of the Buena Vibra club sound released on disc. The influences that come into play on these tunes are numerous, to put it mildly. It may not be an album that’s easily categorized, but it’s easy to love. Opener “Sidestepper” is a salsa-inspired number that recalls the outfit’s early groove. “Deja Soft” has a subtle Jamaican dub consciousness, a hip-hop component, an overdubbed vocal track that has a definite Laurie Anderson tweak and layered rhythms courtesy of Blair’s programming chops. “La Paloma” opens with a purely electronic vamp, then morphs into music that feels like Afrobeat, except that the relentless bassline is Afro-Colombian and Jacobo Velez’s clarinet, sailing above the groove, is free-form jazz.
Heidi Newfield, “What Am I Waiting For”The studio marriage of Heidi Newfield and producer Tony Brown is a match made in heaven. The masterful Brown has helped Newfield stretch vocally in ways that she simply didn’t when she was with Trick Pony. Once thought of simply as a chick singer for the party-hearty trio, Newfield shows on her solo debut that she’s way more. First single “Johnny & June” is a fitting tribute to long-lasting love, while “Wreck You” finds Newfield convincingly relating her frustration in a relationship. “Can’t Let Go” fits her smoky vocal style perfectly, as the production starts spare and builds to a frenetic climax. “Knocked Up” is a sing-along reminder that Newfield can still rock a barroom with the best of them, and the rich and full title cut is appropriate for the singer and anyone who aspires to greater things.
Crooked Stilo, “Cumbia Urbana: The Album”The party comes alive on Crooked Stilo’s latest, where the duo replaces samples with instruments in creating its signature “urban cumbia.” The best tracks hew closer to that than to reggaeton and set Crooked’s clever, naughty rhymes to music that has an equal sense of humor. “Damelo” skillfully blends the electronic synth that’s becoming de rigueur in reggaeton these days with brass and a hook that sounds like it was banged out on a toy Casio. Other highlights are “Ese Soy Yo,” with its radio-friendly chorus; “Que Sufras,” with its awesome wish that the spurning lady gets bitten by an iguana; and “El Vasile,” a bouncy, insistent call to crowd the dance floor. With music this fun, it’s hard not to obey.