'ALL OR NOTHING
Atlantic, ss 1/2
After having spent so much of last summer leaning way back, slow-flowing Fat Joe heads into his sixth album a little thinner and a lot meaner.
Joe's not known for consistent lyrical diligence, but his rhymes haven't lost any weight as he backs up his hard-core act ("Temptation," Parts 1 and 2) and rips nemesis 50 Cent with wordy savagery ("My Fo Fo").
The biggest change within -- thanks to producer/beatmakers Just Blaze, Scott Scorch and Timbaland, and guests R. Kelly and Nelly -- is that Joe has made a more musically exciting, even mainstream, CD without losing street cred or his dirty sonic heft. On "So Hot" and "Get It Poppin"' respectively, Kel and Nel add the sort of party soulfulness sorely lacking in Joe's flabby catalog.
Asthmatic Kitty, sss
Unabashedly excessive, Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" is a 74-minute song cycle mixing quiet acoustic ballads and extravagantly orchestrated set-pieces that survey the history of the Midwestern state, encompassing Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln; the Chicago Fire and World's Fair; and cities such as Decatur, Evansville and Jacksonville.
As on 2003's "Michigan," the first in a purported 50-album project, Stevens uses the geographic-specific references within impressionistic, often personal narratives.
Orchestral crescendos and choral counterpoint lend grandeur to "Come on Feel the Illinoise," but they cross into pretentiousness when they seem imported from "Oklahoma!" in "Metropolis." "Illinois" overreaches sometimes, but it's impressively ambitious.
'EVERY KIND OF LIGHT'
Rykodisc, ss 1/2
Posies mainstays Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow have kept plenty busy since their last studio album in 1998. They've done occasional tours, and issued the odd live and compilation disc plus solo records. Also, they're members of Big Star, and Stringfellow is a touring member of R.E.M.
So it can feel as if this new album was just another gig squeezed between commitments. Auer and Stringfellow rarely fuss over rough edges. Massaging a little melodic focus into the Who-quoting "I Finally Found a Jungle I Like" and the raggedly hyper "Second Time Around" wouldn't have hurt.
Perhaps the extracurricular activity is what inspired new twists. The Prince-style lust-letter "Could He Treat You Better?" and the politically minded atmospheric jangle of "Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive" are welcome diversions off the power-pop path, and the best songs here.
'WHERE'S BLACK BEN?'
Need New Body
5 Rue Christine, s
Need New Body, Philadelphia's weirdest band, makes music for adventurous ears only. The sprawling hippie-punk collective refuses to conform to conventional notions of genre or song structure.
On their third album, the band crosses the line between avant-garde and annoying. Opener "Brite Tha' Day" features a moronic rap over flatulent synth bass, and "So St Rx," a maddeningly silly ode to South Street, is about as charming as a tie-dye clad hobo begging for change in front of Tower Records. Only on "Outer Space" does NNB channel free-spiritedness into something gripping.
Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell
Yep Roc, sss 1/2
On "Two Different Things," the first cut on their first album-length collaboration, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell sing about a crumbling relationship from two perspectives. It's an incisive, heartbreaking tune that sets the tone for an album that expertly revives the tradition of the country duet.
Cockrell and former Whiskeytown member Cary have artistically impressive solo careers, but together they display a natural chemistry. Those voices are perfectly suited to the album's top-notch originals, such as the swooning ballad "Please Break My Heart" and the honky-tonk shuffle "Don't Make It Better."
'YOU AIN'T TALKIN' TO ME: CHARLIE POOLE AND THE ROOTS OF COUNTRY MUSIC'
Columbia/Legacy, sss 1/2
He died in 1931 at age 39 -- he never did take to heart that "Goodbye Booze" number he cut in 1926 -- but unlike with other live-fast-die-young greats, Charlie Poole's star eventually faded. The North Carolina hell-raiser's music was already in print, but this three-CD set is the most high-profile effort to resurrect his legend, presenting him as a sort of hillbilly Robert Johnson.
The 1925-30 recordings merit attention. Although he didn't write his own material, Poole made everything he touched his own, and his three-finger banjo picking helped lay the foundation for bluegrass.
The 44 Poole performances here brim with a propulsive vitality, revealing a complex, full-blooded character.
The Frank and Joe Show
Hyena, sss 1/2
Guitarist Frank Vignola and percussionist Joe Ascione have unusual chemistry going here. The two follow up their first disc, "331/3" with this set, "662/3," arguably tighter and more expansive.
The core sextet covers a wide range from a classical take of a Mozart melody to a thing hinting of things Caribbean to a gypsy vibe to jazz standards with singers Janis Siegel and Jane Monheit.
The rapport between Vignola and Ascione coaxes you to relax. The feel is old- fashioned, tending toward a retro swing.
Justin Time, sss
Jazz violinist Billy Bang is a Vietnam vet who served during the Tet Offensive and had a breakdown soon after the war ended. He began delving into his wartime experiences with "Vietnam: The Aftermath" in 2001 and continues with this set.
The free-jazz player incorporates traditional Vietnamese motifs into jazz. His violin, which can slide between notes of the western scale, is a perfect vehicle for the cultural exchange, hitting the quarter tones that Bang emphasizes in the eastern style.
The resulting amalgam is full of mysterious-sounding vamps. Some cuts, such as "Ru Con" and "Ly Ngua O," are overtly Viet-sounding. "Lock & amp; Load" shows a boppish feel, and "Doi Moi" is a plaintive ballad that scores no matter what the language.
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