Ray Davies, “Working Man’s Café” You can take the boy out of Britain — and, apparently, a good deal of Britain out of the boy. Ray Davies, the once (and future?) Kinks frontman, has long been among rock’s most strident social commentators, with a decidedly British flip to his observations. But on his second proper solo album, Davies drops any sense of U.K. jive and draws on a residential tenure in New Orleans earlier this decade for what is decidedly the most “American” work of his more than four decades of recording. “Vietnam Cowboys” bursts forward with a gritty shuffle and ruminations about the impact of the global economy on these shores. “Hymn for a New Age” is an Americana-styled anthem calling for spiritual overhaul, while “Imaginary Man” has a rootsy richness that echoes Muscle Shoals. The effect is smart, personal and potent.
Carla Bruni, “No Promises” Less than a minute into Carla Bruni’s second album, you’re just like the French president: hopelessly seduced. The former supermodel has the gossamer alto of so many other singing beauties — Bridgette Bardot, Marianne Faithfull, Francoise Hardy. But Bruni’s source material isn’t her own elegant malaise. It’s 11 of the world’s most celebrated English-language poems, set to her own simple, seaside folk. “Come let me sing into your ear / Those dancing days are gone,” she lilts on the harmonica-laden opener, lyrics courtesy of William Butler Yeats. It’s an achievement just to fit the heady verbiage into a verse-chorus structure. But to do it in a way that seems as natural as the paparazzi at her back is a show of artistic prowess. As mature as it is playful, this album is pure pleasure.
Allison Moorer, “Mockingbird”Elegant, powerful and authentically Southern, Allison Moorer’s is the rare voice worthy of an entire album of cover songs. So it’s not surprising that “Mockingbird” contains more than its share of iPod-deserving tributes (including Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and a slowed, acoustic, hornless take on “Ring of Fire”). Not all of the revamped selections clear the fence, however. The sound of the Alabama-born, Nashville-groomed singer attempting the rural loneliness of Gillian Welch’s “Revelator” strikes an intriguing chord, but her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” doesn’t feel right, and she doesn’t seem quite dirty enough for Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.” Hiccups aside, there’s something really brave and thoroughly punk rock about hearing her tackle Ma Rainey’s “Daddy Goodbye Blues,” considering that Moorer’s (and sister Shelby Lynne’s) father took his and her mother’s lives in a murder-suicide.
Bell XI, “Flock” Wildly popular in its home country, Ireland’s Bell X1 is known stateside primarily as former bandmates of Damien Rice and a soundtrack source for “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The OC.” This should change with its debut U.S. set, which showcases its accessible modern rock and frontman Paul Noonan’s ambitious lyrics. Standout tracks “Flame,” “My First Born for a Song” and “Trampoline” are catchy and literate, building intensity and working in unexpected instrumental flourishes. Noonan’s understated delivery gives story songs like “Rocky Took a Lover” a fine, rueful edge. But his restraint isn’t enough to save the more maudlin tracks, which likely work better in a concert setting.
Various Artists, “Spirits in the Material World: A Reggae Tribute to the Police” Fans of the Police know that reggae was a principal influence for the trio, so the idea of a reggae tribute to the band is blessed with logic. Miami’s Inner Circle formed the instrumental heart of this 13-track project, backing such acts as Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs and Toots & the Maytals. Inner Circle also cut a fine cover of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” for the project. Other fabulous renditions include Junior Reid’s version of “Synchronicity,” which offers one of the CD’s coolest arrangements. Cyril Neville works an absolutely glorious cover of “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Joan Osborne is every bit as dynamic with her rendition of the stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take.”
Senor Flavio, “Supersaund 2012”Contrary to its title, this well-crafted solo album by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ co-founder isn’t quite a projection into the future, but more of a throwback to the ska/rock that the group merged so beautifully with Latin sounds in its day. The Latin element comes mostly in the form of the language here, but the Cadillacs’ ex-bassist/songwriter adds retro sounds, notably surf and garage rock, to the mix. Perhaps the best track on the album is its most stripped-down: The folky, acoustic “De Story of De Loko Univers-Love” sounds like Senor Flavio recorded it while playing guitar on his couch and added a subtle organ later on. Still, Cadillacs fans should find plenty to jog their memories on this album.
The Raveonettes, “Lust Lust Lust”If the Raveonettes surprised us with the sunny pop sheen of 2005’s “Pretty in Black,” they deliver an even more jarring turn on “Lust Lust Lust.” Any artifice of mainstream confection is stripped away, replaced by a fuzzy, lo-fi minimalism that uses reverb and sustain to create a deceptively lush sonic tapestry. “Aly, Walk With Me” mixes Velvet Underground dryness with a deep, urban groove to spooky effect; in this sonic context, an invitation to “walk with me in my dreams/All through the night” sounds as nightmarish as it does romantic. The album may consign the Raveonettes to cult status, but like a challenging mate, it seduces us into coming back for more.
Mike Doughty, “Golden Delicious” It may be his poppiest and slickest work to date, but “Golden Delicious” is more proof that Mike Doughty still knows where to make the melodies twist and turn to find the sweet spot among the ridiculous, the sublime and the sad. Opener “Fort Hood” is a deceptively boppy-sounding look at a soldier who’d rather “leave the mobs and the murder in a distant land” before throwing out choruses of “Let the sunshine in” and then lamenting that said soldier is no longer of the enviably innocent time when his biggest need is to “blast Young Jeezy with your friends in a parking lot.” It’s always a little tough to tell how much he’s kidding, but there’s certainly something sun-splashed about the zany scatting and “na na na’s” on “Put It Down” and his smiley reworking of “The Little Drummer Boy” on “I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep On Dancing.”
Nick Lowe, “Jesus of Cool: 30th Anniversary EditionThis album was going to change the world, its rocking power-pop and savagely smart lyrics saving a generation from the torpor of 1978’s one-hit disco flashes and smotheringly produced corporate rock. Things went wrong from the moment CBS Records changed the title to “Pure Pop for Now People” for its U.S. release. But Nick Lowe’s songs remain as brilliant as ever, full of fame-dooming industry inside jokes, from the rich chords of “Music for Money” to the sweet sarcasm of “I Love My Label” to the celebratory anticipation of concert night in “So It Goes.” His encyclopedic knowledge and warm embrace of every post-1950s musical style made the line “Someone in the newspaper said it was art” prophetic in “They Called It Rock.” But critics didn’t make the rules then any more than they do now; radio’s contempt for high-IQ craftsmanship also remains unchanged. Still, “Jesus of Cool” is great as ever. Plenty of bonus/alternate tracks, too.