Ry Cooder, “I, Flathead” On his latest solo album, Ry Cooder intones, “Time is all you got,” and it’s the ravages of time that have informed the California trilogy he wraps with “I, Flathead.” But while 2005’s “Chavez Ravine” and last year’s “My Name Is Buddy” pondered losses — of places, communities, solidarity — “I, Flathead” takes us back to a time gone by, when California was in the early throes of modern development. The fictitious singer-songwriter Kash Buk and his band the Clowns provide the aural travelogue of the Golden State. Buk and company take us to Bakersfield (“Johnny Cash,” “Spayed Cooley”), the Mexican border (“Filipino Dance Hall Girl,” “My Dwarf Is Getting Tired”) and the beatnik clubs (”Flathead One More Time,” “Can I Smoke Here?”). It’s a wild ride through another place and time, but Cooder keeps a steady, and trustworthy, hand on the wheel.
Three 6 Mafia, “Last 2 Walk”Winning a best original song Academy Award for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (from “Hustle & Flow”) didn’t exactly inspire a spirit of highbrow subtlety among the principals of Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia. On “Last 2 Walk,” their repeatedly delayed follow-up to 2005’s breakthrough “Most Known Unknown,” DJ Paul and Juicy J profess their interest in drugs on “Weed, Blow, Pills” and their affection for oral sex on “I’d Rather.” Still, “Last 2 Walk” should satisfy longtime Three 6 fans. In addition to a handful of collaborative tracks with the likes of Akon and Good Charlotte, the set contains plenty of the woozily psychedelic hip-hop that made Paul and Juicy unlikely stars in the first place.
James Blackshaw, “Litany of Echoes”Twenty-seven-year-old Brit James Blackshaw has lately emerged as a major force in the world of instrumental guitar, his epic, austere compositions and unpretentious 12-string technique perching him somewhere between John Fahey and Robbie Basho. But guitar isn’t the first thing you hear on “Litany of Echoes”; rather, it’s the tense piano plunking on opener “Gate of Ivory,” likely presented to assure fans that Blackshaw isn’t content to stay in one musical place. Repetition remains key to the material’s development (three of the six songs approach or exceed 12 minutes), but there are more accessible and melodic transitions here than in the past. There are even passages that resemble “hooks,” and the songs make more logical sense as pieces of music thanks to their presence. Mostly, it’s just downright beautiful stuff.
Sam Sparro “Black & Gold” Around for more than a year, Sam Sparro’s “Black & Gold” has created the kind of viral buzz you can’t buy. It’s a Gershwin-meets-Goldfrapp song of tragic love, delivered by Sparro with a plaintive soulfulness that breaks hearts. On his debut self-titled full-length, the Australian-born, Los Angeles-residing singer-songwriter doesn’t try to repeat “Black,” because he doesn’t have to: He can do it all. “Too Many Questions” beats Jamiroquai at its own game, getting closer to the essence of Stevie Wonder. “Sick” brings back the synth-washed narcissism of ’80s Depeche Mode better than the band itself can. Even Prince gets punked: “Sally,” an ode to a stripper, is so funky it’s downright purple. But the best part of Sparro is that he’s not just multiplying old styles by new sounds. Dressed like a raver B-boy, switching between Rufus Wainwright and D’Angelo, the boy’s not faking it.
Alejandro Escovedo, “Real Animal” If Alejandro Escovedo’s 2006 album, “The Boxing Mirror,” was a reflection on mortality and the hepatitis C that nearly killed him, “Real Animal” buttresses the case for artistic immortality. The songs are richly textured, heartfelt autobiographical snapshots. “Nun’s Song” concisely evokes the ethos of the Nuns, the San Francisco punk band in which Escovedo played: “We don’t want your approval ... We know we’ll never be great,” he sings of a band that hardly knew the chords to “Louie Louie.” On “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” Escovedo rips away the sentimentality that often accompanies tributes to New York’s former bohemian headquarters. The raucous “Chip n’ Tony” pays tribute to the band Rank & File, with whom Escovedo played a sublime form of early-’80s country punk. “Sister Lost Soul” swells with sweet emotion, instilling visions of Tina Turner in her ’80s prime. Sweeping violins and take-no-prisoners guitars co-exist in producer Tony Visconti’s gorgeous glam frame for Escovedo’s visionary sound.
Dwele, “Sketches of a Man”This 20-track collection is inspired by love, women, sex and all the ups and downs of relationships (“Free As a Bird,” “Workin On It”), underlined by attractive production, pretty compositions and Dwele’s supple voice. The narratives break from the norm on tracks like “I’m Cheating,” where he croons about loving his partner’s reserved side as well as her kinky side, and feeling the urge to cheat on one with the other as if they were two different people. The rock-tinged “Body Rock” and “Brandi,” which features a rap verse, also stray from the typical soulful sound, but they add a welcome twist. Dwele capably handles Bobby Caldwell’s tough breakup anthem “Open Your Eyes” and displays vulnerability on “A Few Reasons.”
Liz Phair, “Exile in Guyville” (Reissue)
When “Exile in Guyville” was released in 1993, its lo-fi sound and frank lyrics about female sexuality and desire were seen by many as revolutionary. Fifteen years later, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that ditties about oral sex and girls kissing girls top the pop chart and can be heard while shopping at the drugstore. But “Guyville” stands the test of time simply because, while the shock value might have diminished, the intelligence and soulfulness with which Liz Phair sings about these topics remains unparalleled. The rerelease contains three bonus tracks; only one of them, the mournful “Ant in Alaska,” is worth multiple listens. Phair also took it upon herself to “return to Guyville” and make a movie about it; while there are some funny moments on the DVD, most of it seems extraneous. Most of the time, you just shouldn’t mess with perfection.