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Kenny Chesney, Taj Mahal have new CDs

Also, new releases from Lucinda Williams, Buena Vista Social Club, Keane
/ Source: Billboard

Kenny Chesney, “Lucky Old Sun”Kenny Chesney does his heroes George Strait and Jimmy Buffett proud on his latest set, which has a free-and-easy feel befitting its island inspiration. Like Strait, Chesney has mastered a laid-back vocal delivery that flows easily from song to song. And like Buffett, the East Tennessee native has learned to paint pictures that transport the listener to a more carefree place. There’s plenty of guest appearances — Willie Nelson on “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day),” Dave Matthews on “I’m Alive,” Mac McAnally on his own “Down the Road” and the Wailers on current No. 1 single “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” But Chesney, who wrote or co-wrote five of the set’s 11 cuts, does just fine on his own with songs like “The Life,” where he convincingly tells a tale of what’s ultimately important.

Lucinda Williams, “Little Honey”Given her history of misbegotten record deals, drugs, chin-out temperament and stormy romances, Lucinda Williams has a better claim than most to sing AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” — which she does here in a soulful, rootsy and even more poignant reimagining. Following 2007’s downcast “West,” “Real Love” kicks things off with gritty guitars and a nod to her current romantic happiness (fiance Tom Overby co-produced the album) and “Honey Bee” is a buoyant rocker. But there’s plenty of cloudy and ambivalent terrain to be found on such tracks as “If Wishes Were Horses,” “Knowing,” the achingly mournful “Rarity” and the cautionary “Little Rock Star.” Williams and Elvis Costello get their twang on for the spirited “Jailhouse Tears,” and a combination of new elements (horns) and powerhouse playing by her touring band Buick 6 bolster the set’s emotional heft.

Taj Mahal, “Maestro”Taj Mahal’s “Maestro” arrives 40 years after his self-titled debut and decades of mighty fine music. Distinguished guests have contributed to this special record, including Los Lobos, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley’s band and Mahal’s own Phantom Blues Band. Deva Mahal sings a number with her dad on “Never Let You Go,” backed by Los Lobos. “Maestro” is essentially 11 back-to-back highlights: Cue up “Zanzibar,” a song Mahal co-wrote with Angelique Kidjo, who also sings on the tune, while legendary Malian artist Toumani Diabate plays kora. Check out Mahal on the banjo with his Phantom crew, knocking down some sweet blues on “Slow Drag,” and make a note to immerse yourself in the deliciously sinful groove of “Strong Man Holler.”

Buena Vista Social Club, “Buena Vista Social Club and Carnegie Hall”This bravura concert double CD is, in fact, only the second Buena Vista Social Club album featuring the original members. This Carnegie Hall show took place July 1, 1998, before a wildly enthusiastic audience, and 10 years later it’s still easy to hear why the crowd was crazy for the music. The recording is immaculate, the performance breathtaking. Disc one opens with “Chan Chan,” a memorable BVSC tune and an ideal intro number that sets the festive mood. Throughout the discs we hear the incredible voice of Ibrahim Ferrer, the fluent guitar of Compay Segundo and the gorgeous piano of Ruben Gonzalez, all of whom have since died. Together with Cachaito Lopez, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa and a stellar crew of second-line players, these legends of Cuban music brought some Latin heat to a legendary venue.

Keane, “Perfect Symmetry”Ever the piano-rock bridesmaid to Coldplay, Keane opened its last album, “Under the Iron Sea” (2006), with dour strings, military funeral snare hits and weepy arpeggios. But “Perfect Symmetry” bursts out of the gate with a suite of giddy, ’80s-inflected Brit pop songs that, surprisingly, suit the band well. “Spiralling” recalls Keane’s radio hit “Is It Any Wonder?” with a healthy injection of synth; “Better Than This” is a dead ringer for a Smiths song, liberally using hand claps, singer Tom Chaplin’s falsetto and a singing saw, of all things. When the band finally does return to familiar territory (soaring, ebony-and-ivory drama), it spares nothing.

Michelle Williams, “Unexpected”The surprise alluded to in the title of Michelle Williams’ third solo album is that “Unexpected” finds the former Destiny’s Child member moving from gospel to pop. Considering that she can no longer depend on the occasional DC set to keep her name in mainstream circulation, though, it’s not hard to believe Williams would choose to make such a transition. Nor is the radio-ready sound of “Unexpected” — with a guest appearance by Flo Rida — much of a shock; Williams and her handlers have clearly been listening to recent hits by Rihanna and Ciara. But “Unexpected” does boast a handful of shiny electro-R&B gems (“Hello Heartbreak,” “We Break the Dawn”) that make Williams’ journey from church to club as enjoyable as it was inevitable.

Nikka Costa, “Pebble to a Pearl”The title of Nikka Costa’s third album could double as a metaphor for her career. Her two previous offerings on Virgin, “Everybody Got Their Something” and “Can’tneverdidnothin’,” made small ripples. But neither came close to capturing Costa’s Janis Joplin-meets-Chaka Khan vocals; her funky recipe of soul, blues and pop; or the Energizer Bunny spirit of her stage shows. Costa polishes all that to a fine glow on “Pebble to a Pearl,” which the singer-songwriter recorded live in the studio. The record’s organic feel enhances her textured and colorful delivery on such songs as the uplifting “Stuck to You,” the autobiographical title track and the compelling slow drag “Love to Love You Less.” With this album, Costa comes defiantly into her own.

Dub Colossus, “A Town Called Addis” This album is the work of Dubuluh (Nick Page) and a host of Ethiopian and English artists. It’s an intriguing, somewhat surprising collection of tunes. Oftentimes dub projects can be anchored in a recurrent groove, but Page has created a group of tracks that are quite distinctive. “Neh Yelginete (My First Love)” is a beautifully layered tune that invokes the Ethiojazz vibe. “Ophir Dub” has a retro feel, bringing to mind the dub reggae of Abyssinians. “Shegye Shegitu (Blue Nile Mix)” is a dark, bluesy number produced in fairly minimalist fashion. The song “Yeka Sub City Rockers” conjures the spirit of Augustus Pablo and blends it with an ambient dub sensibility. The opening track on the disc, “Azmari Dub,” is Ethiopique roots reggae featuring vocalist Sintayehu Zenebe and the sturdy punch of the Horns of Negus.

Ray La Montagne, “Gossip in the Grain”If the Ray LaMontagne we met on 2004’s “Trouble” came off as a beaten man, beautifully broke down and busted, full of longing and regret, the one who returns to us on “Gossip in the Grain” is smiling and ready to have at least a little fun. Of course, never more so than when pining for Meg White during her namesake track, on which LaMontagne has us envisioning the pair biking along the sea shore — atop a crude White Stripes rhythm, no less. More important, the swinging, banjo-driven “Hey Me, Hey Mama” is a lighthearted joy, the rare tune where the fun being had in the studio is audible and immediately contagious. Elsewhere, LaMontagne warmly delivers more of the vivid relationship stories he’s built a career on.