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New CDs: Korn, Common, Charlie Hunter

Also new: Releases from Tammy Cochran, Ella Fitzgerald, Soulive
/ Source: Billboard

Korn, “Untitled” (Virgin Records)Korn’s eighth studio album may lack a title, but there isn’t much else that remains undefined about the band more than 10 years into its career. The act has evolved into a reliable source for efficiently brooding guitar riffs and lyrics heavy with antipathy, although it isn’t afraid to still let loose its inner freak and experiment a bit. Check “Bitch We Got a Problem,” an elegy to schizophrenia with a booming, fist-pumping chorus. Yet it’s the delicate keyboard flourish and electro-buzzed verses that ultimately provide the hook. Here, Korn brings some of the adventurousness of 2002’s “Untouchables” to 2005’s radio-ready “See You on the Other Side,” with angelic background vocals on “Starting Over,” a bit of ’60s psychedelia on “Kiss” and an epic-like build to a thrashy breakdown on “Ever Be.” Indeed, Korn is one step closer to crafting an album built for arenas and headphones alike.

Charlie Hunter, “Mistico” (Fantasy Records)After three wildly improvisational Groundtruther CDs with drummer Bobby Previte, Charlie Hunter emerges a changed man on “Mistico,” his debut on Concord’s resuscitated Fantasy imprint. The guitar/bass wiz returns to the trio setting of his early-’90s beginnings, and an ax with seven strings in lieu of eight. But this time, a keyboardist (Erik Deutsch mans piano, Fender Rhodes and CasioTone) is onboard along with drummer Simon Lott, and the tone is decidedly rocking, with no trace of Joe Pass within earshot. Hunter’s guitar tone is gnarled, gritty and edgy, all within the bluesy groove vein he’s consistently delivered. Though the session exudes lo-fi nonchalance, new compositional shape-shifting sparks in such tunes as “Speakers Built It” and “Spoken Word.” Blues and funk play significant roles, but thankfully Hunter delivers a slow tune, simply titled “Ballad,” that spotlights his most overlooked trait. Recommended highly.

Ella Fitzgerald, “Love Letters From Ella” (Concord)Love songs from jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald are a very good idea, especially when the tracks were previously unreleased, as is the case here. We hear Fitzgerald in the company of Count Basie and his Orchestra (“Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”) and the London Symphony Orchestra (“Cry Me a River,” “My Old Flame” and “Take Love Easy”), as well as with guitarist Joe Pass on the gloriously minimal “The One I Love.” She also takes a turn with pianist Andre Previn on “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” highlighted by her particular flair for scat singing. This is a charming album, presenting Fitzgerald in fine voice and backed on most numbers by orchestral arrangements.

Common, “Finding Forever” (G.O.O.D. Music/Geffen Records)For the first time in his seven-album career, Common has made a record that follows the same formula as its predecessor. Not a bad move considering the success of the four-time Grammy Award-nominated “Be.” Still delivering genuine rhymes, and reteaming with mentor/producer Kanye West, the Chi-town wordsmith might just be the best equipped to save hip-hop from its commercial slump. On the Lily Allen-assisted “Drivin Me Wild,” the MC rhymes about a woman obsessed with her looks and a man who thinks material things will gain him respect; the backing track features marching-band drums. Common also raps about the desire to be with a past love on the “I Want You.” But it’s the Nina Simone-sampling “Misunderstood” where he’s clearly in his storytelling element, as he deftly describes the thin line separating great ambitions, strong faith, lost dreams and hopes gone astray.

Soulive, “No Place Like Soul (Stax Records)

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Soulive began life in 1999 as a funk-jazz trio of considerable power and inventiveness. Even when it took partial detours into hip-hop and Hendrix, or indulged its rock-collaborative influences as the band did on 2005’s “Break Out,” the members’ feet were never far from their jazz foundations. As such, “No Place Like Soul” sounds like no less than a comprehensive reinvention bordering on occasionally a different band. Soulive is now relocated to the newly reconstituted Stax label, and it sounds like it. “Waterfall” is something close to Robert Randolph, and ballads like “Never Know” and “Callin”’ work up a Stax-appropriate lather. Some fans may lament the directness of the new sound, and there’s an occasional production smoothness that hasn’t been around before. But the jiggly grooves on tracks like “Comfort” should help ease the transition.

Tammy Cochran, “Where I Am” (Shanachie)Cochran initially made a splash in 2001 with the poignant hit “Angels in Waiting,” a tribute to the two brothers she lost to cystic fibrosis. After two albums on Sony, she makes her debut on Shanachie with a compelling collection that shows off not only her heart-in-the-throat vocals, but also her skill as a songwriter. The title track is a survivor’s anthem and testament to the power of love, while “On My Side of the World” is a tender ballad about a woman patiently waiting for her man to return. The artist brings energy and attitude to the uptempo songs, but it’s the ballads where Cochran really shines. The achingly vulnerable quality of her voice is reminiscent of classic Tammy Wynette.

Sean Kingston, “Sean Kingston” (Beluga Heights/Epic Records)On his self-titled debut, 17-year-old Kingston creates a world where hip-hop, reggae and a touch of doo-wop come together for something fresh. The Jamaica-bred artist is poised to be an unlikely pop-culture phenomenon. The hit “Beautiful Girls” balances idealistic love with the perils of relationships, while “Me Love” laments an absent girlfriend with reggae-style chatting. There’s also a heartfelt dedication to his incarcerated mother, “Dry Your Eyes.” But it’s not all soft and gooey; on the Vybz Cartel and Kardinal Offishal-assisted “Colors 2007,” Kingston chronicles the more grisly side of the events that made him who he is today.