Prince, “Planet Earth” (Columbia Records)Prince’s decision to package this disc inside copies of tabloid newspaper the Mail infuriated British retailers. But judging by the tracks that “Planet Earth” contains, he won’t encounter fans’ ire. The album doesn’t break new ground, but there’s plenty to like about its mix of pumping rock and old-school soul. The tight 10-tracker opens and closes with social commentaries (the title cut and “Resolution”). Both showcase Prince’s dexterity on the guitar as he effortlessly rolls with intriguing tempo twists and turns. Marva King’s delicious vocals set off the rollicking, funky ode to model “Chelsea Rodgers.” Then Prince shifts gears to mellow on the smooth-flowing “Somewhere Here on Earth” and “Mr. Goodnight.” With such longtime colleagues as Sheila E., Maceo Parker and Wendy & Lisa in tow, you can hear how much fun Prince is still having — and why he shouldn’t be counted out as he approaches the 30th anniversary of his first chart hit.
Trey Anastasio, “The Horseshoe Curve” (Rubber Jungle)Trey Anastasio does patience-tested fans proud with this satisfying collection of funk-, jazz- and orchestral-tinged instrumental barnburners performed with the 10-piece band he toured with from 2002 to 2004. After veering into singer-songwriter territory on recent solo efforts, the former Phish frontman reminds us of his flair for ornate big-band arrangements and organic improvisation with two live cuts and six studio outtakes recorded concurrently with sessions for 2004’s “Seis de Mayo.” Those who have been waiting to hop back on the groove train will be overjoyed with the Calypso cadences of “Sidewalks of San Francisco,” the high-energy psych-rock of “The 5th Round” and the dramatic harmonic shifts of the title track. The disc proves Anastasio doesn’t need his old bandmates to sizzle, but ought to get back to doing what he does best: kicking out the jams.
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Home at Last” (Walt Disney Records)On the heels of his appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” and his role as the father of Disney Channel character Hannah Montana (played by his real-life daughter, Miley Cyrus), Billy Ray Cyrus is hot. That makes the timing of his latest release everything a label and artist could hope for. Unfortunately, “Home at Last” doesn’t deliver. A curious mix of new and old, the album finds Cyrus offering tepid covers of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” as well as Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” First single “Ready, Set, Don’t Go,” which Cyrus co-wrote for his famous daughter, will no doubt bring the album attention, but not much else here take advantage of Cyrus’ heat.
Hanson, “The Walk” (3CG Records)“The Walk” has an iconic American sound in the same way that, say, Michael Bay makes iconic American movies; this is music to play while speeding a convertible down country roads at sunset with a blonde in a sundress standing up in the passenger seat, arms outstretched. Such an approach will, of course, endear Hanson to about as many people as it horrifies, but there’s no doubt that 10 years after it sprung “Mmmbop” on an unsuspecting populace waiting for that Prodigy album, Hanson remains as aggressively accessible as ever. “Been There Before” packs a na-na-na chorus, “60” is the group’s shot at the “Grey’s Anatomy” market looking for something cuter than the Fray, and “Georgia” is all heartland jangle and cheeseburger-and-a-beer production that could fit right into pop, adult contemporary or country playlists.
UNKLE, “War Stories” (Surrender All)Studio mastermind James Lavelle’s DJ/rock collective UNKLE has its third go with the aptly titled “War Stories.” It’s the first UNKLE album to be released via Lavelle’s own label, and he certainly isn’t playing it safe. The sound is bold, big and badass, with a crew of ballsy rock stars filling out the songs. Former Cult frontman Ian Astbury’s vocals on “Burn My Shadow” are suspenseful and foreboding, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme pounds out a relentless “Restless,” and Lavelle even steps to the mic for the first time for “Hold My Hand,” a thumping boom of a track that is an album standout. Aggressive yet soulful, “War” doesn’t just straddle the line between rock and electronica — it destroys it.
Tegan & Sara, “The Con” (Vapor/Sire Records)The fifth album from Canadian twins Tegan & Sara Quin is another tidy serving of the ’80s-inspired harmonic indie pop the duo has been cooking up for nearly a decade. While not as immediately satisfying as its 2004 predecessor, “So Jealous,” “The Con” is more sonically adventurous. The sisters flesh out each other’s songs and weave their distinctive harmonies through a variety of rhythmic structures. Cuts like the shimmering title track (rocking but movie-montage smooth), the choppy, skittish “Are You Ten Years Ago” and the seductively simple “Back in Your Head” each highlight subtleties in the pair’s songwriting that haven’t been as vibrant in the past, making “The Con” a welcome addition to summer playlists and to Tegan & Sara’s promising catalog.
Tom T. Hall, “Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T.” (Blue Circle Records)
This modest bluegrass session is evidence that, four decades after his recording debut, Tom T. Hall still ranks with country’s greatest storytellers, and his beloved wife and songwriting partner, Dixie, is one big reason why. Though the mood is generally upbeat, funerals figure prominently in “Jimmy Martin’s Life Story” (recorded shortly before yodeling guitarist Martin’s 2005 death and humorously suggesting the avoidance of hard-drinking blues songs at the memorial ceremony), “A Headstone for Harry” and the great “A Hero in Harlan,” an unsentimental look at a small-town soldier’s return for burial. Pastoral memories of dirt roads, county borders and green hills surround acknowledgement about not fitting in with the young folks. Sometimes Hall’s just along for a relaxed ride among an all-star cast of pickers and strummers, and he talks more than he sings. But then, he’s always been a great talker.
Kany Garcia, “Cualquier Dia” (Sony BMG)Singer-songwriter Kany Garcia’s confessional rock debut is a welcome major-label departure from Latin pop divadom. Her husky tone seems built for a sideways glance at breakups, sex, aging and human indifference, but it’s the uptempo tracks that really leave an impression. Garcia’s sudden bursts of anger are a dose of good sassy fun, especially on the country-tinged “Amigo en el Bano,” a darkly funny tune about a vibrator, and the brisk rocker “Mujer de Tacones,” in which she declares she’s “tired of looking at myself in the mirror ... because in my early 20s, you’ve made me feel so wrinkled.” Garcia’s lyrics show moxie, and with a few more memorable arrangements to match, her incisive ballads could have even wider appeal.