Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Raising Sand”On the coattails of Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler’s genre-busting “All the Roadrunning” collaboration comes “Raising Sand,” the intriguing pairing of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss. Produced by T Bone Burnett, who contributes his keen knack for proffering compelling, off-the-beaten-path tunes, the CD traverses multifarious roots styles, from country (the heart-rending Gene Clark waltz “Through the Morning, Through the Night”) to Kurt Weill-like balladry (Sam Phillips’ enchanting “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”) to haunting melody (Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s “Trampled Rose”) to folk rock (the Plant/Jimmy Page beauty “Please Read the Letter”). Key to the magic is the delicious harmony vocals of the unlikely duo, best displayed on the swaying “Killing the Blues,” given trad-country depth by steel pedal ace Greg Leisz.
Juanes, “La Vida Es ... Un Ratico”This album’s pensive name and introspective title track belie a project with stronger rock undertones and more outright romanticism than previous Juanes efforts. What remain are the memorable melodies guaranteed to become hits and the distinctive guitar riffs, but with a decidedly more pronounced edge. The lyrics, which have always been a Juanes strong suit, are more developed and often gorgeous. “Minas Piedras,” a duet with Argentine rocker Andres Calamaro, boasts a barcarolle rhythm that underscores the sadness of land-mine devastation, while “Bandera de Manos” has German rock star Campino singing in German and Spanish. Those yearning for more along the lines of Juanes’ world hit “La Camisa Negra” can get a good dose of Colombian folk on “Tres.”
Neil Young, “Chrome Dreams II”If Neil Young has been consistently inconsistent throughout his career, he is rarely as all-over-the-map on the same album as he is on “Chrome Dreams II,” named in reference to a 1976 album that never materialized. The humble, sweet strummer “Beautiful Bluebird” conjures the mid-’70s acoustic classic “Comes a Time”; the steel guitar-soaked “Ever After” recalls the pure country of “Old Ways”; and “Ordinary People” and “No Hidden Path” — which together clock in at nearly 33 minutes — offer an electric swirl of “Greendale,” “Broken Arrow” and ”After the Gold Rush.” It’s a hodge-podge that presents Neil the fighter, Neil the philosophizer, Neil the husband, Neil the softie and Neil the hippie. “Ordinary People” is the dividing line: a rambling, piano- and horn-encrusted portrait of America sure to be loved and hated equally. Overall though, is the album better than “Prairie Wind” or “Living With War”? Yes.
Carbon/Silicon, “The Last Poet”“The Last Poet” is the sound of Mick Jones excited again about music. As such, it’s exactly the kind of record his diehards expect from him, one full of accessible guitar rock with plenty of melodic solos, singable choruses and conscious, sweetly idealistic lyrics. Sparked by his production work with the Libertines, his songwriting reunion with former Generation X guitarist Tony James (Carbon/Silicon’s other driving engine) and the passing of Clash bandmate Joe Strummer, Jones displays enthusiasm on this album the likes of which he hasn’t shown in 15 years. It’s a melange of his loves for glam, punk and pop through which Jones sounds full of the ideas, determination and the sheer thirst for fun that he had at 25.
Dwight Yoakam, “Dwight Sings Buck”Dwight Yoakam’s long friendship with, and admiration for, the late Buck Owens is well documented, which makes this heartfelt tribute to his mentor a natural. And Yoakam’s treatment of 15 Owens classics is spot on, which is not to say he mimics Owens note for note. At times Yoakam clearly channels his mentor (“Act Naturally,” “Crying Time”), and at others he cuts a fresh path. The result is a refreshing blend of authenticity and new life. Working with his road band, Yoakam does his idol proud on this exceptional collection.
Serj Tankian, “Elect the Dead”System of a Down may be on hiatus, but its sound isn’t, thanks to frontman Serj Tankian. “Elect the Dead,” his first full-length solo effort, boasts the same kind of arty arrangements and cascading dynamics as SOAD’s ouvre, a sign that while guitarist Daron Malakian is often considered the band’s mad genius, Tankian’s elastic, expressive vocals are as integral to its character. “Empty Walls” charges out at full metallic speed, then pulls back and maintains that course throughout the song’s three minutes and 50 seconds. That pattern becomes Tankian’s stock in trade here, from the staccato attack and Eastern European flavors of “The Unthinking Majority” to the Meat Loaf-style bombast of “Money” and the jazz-inflected rumble of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
Babyshambles, “Shotter’s Nation”It has been quite some time since the music of Babyshambles leader Pete Doherty received more notoriety than his drug arrests. That won’t change with “Shotter’s Nation,” though there are a few instances where the songs manage to make the listener forget about the court appearances and remember Doherty’s uniquely skewered way around a guitar line and lyric. Though there’s nothing here that reaches the highs of Doherty’s work with the Libertines, opener “Carry On Up the Morning” comes close, with its ramshackle guitar opening and the singer’s apparent perspective on his nebulous public persona. But too often the songs sound like half-baked fragments or third-rate Beatles outtakes. Here’s hoping Doherty can overcome his problems and return his focus to songwriting.
Rissi Palmer, “Rissi Palmer”“Country Girl” — the song that has famously made Missouri-bred Rissi Palmer the first black woman in two decades to hit the Hot Country Songs chart — is a propulsive, soul-fueled stomp offering a useful lyric lesson about how you don’t have to be “a Georgia peach from Savannah Beach” to identify as country. But her groove doesn’t end there. “Mr. Ooh La La,” with Palmer’s vocals serving as rhythm hooks, could stir up even more dance floors. Older R&B influences are audible as well — “All This Woman Needs” has a Dionne Warwick prettiness, “I’m Not of This World” is tough blues rock and the melody of “Leavin’ on Your Mind” recalls the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment.” Throughout, Palmer shows off a soul-country smokiness that proves genres aren’t as segregated as they sometimes seem on paper.
Dave Gahan, “Hourglass”On “Hourglass,” Dave Gahan wisely returns to the highly synthesized electronica of his main band Depeche Mode. Unlike his more guitar-centered solo debut, 2003’s “Paper Monsters,” the follow-up is on the whole dark and moody, filled with thick, dense beats and pulsating grooves. The ambient “Saw Something” is a haunting, echoey opener, followed by the glam rock-ish “Kingdom.” “21 Days” and “Use You” sound almost industrial, while the bass-heavy “Deeper and Deeper” is strikingly gritty and fierce. The best songs here evoke classic Depeche Mode, but the slower, sparse numbers lack a sense of urgency.