'BROTHERS FROM ANOTHER'
(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) sss
The not-so-niceties of Philadelphia's Nicetown neighborhood are clear to native sons Christopher Ries and Hanif Muhammad. As Young Gunz, the duo known for their breathy flow have chronicled the neighborhood's cheerlessness with a surliness equal to the contagion of their atmospheric tracks. Here, however, rather than sticking to a street's darkest operas (such as the ominous yet harmonious "It's the Life"), the Gunz use the whole color spectrum.
With crooners from 112 beside and a Luther sample behind, they take on a summer's yellow glare on "Don't Keep Me Waiting (Come Back)," a salaciously tinged purple haze on "Grown Man Pt. II" (with pal Kanye West), and gold-plated funk on "Set It Off."
"Brothers" ain't the happiest record, as the Gunz, partnered with irksomely laconic rapper Pooda Brown ("The Way It Goes"), do forlorn as few in hip-hop could. However, they spray their gray with splashes of the rainbow, letting the sunshine in.
'SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY'
(Tommy Boy) sss
There's much to love about the sassy girl dance-rap trio Fannypack, who rep their Brooklyn "Seven One Eight" area code on their second CD, "See You Next Tuesday." Such as lyrics like: "Always wanna punch people wearing Von Dutch/Trucker's hats, oh Lord, I hate 'em so much," from "Feet and Hands."
There's nothing quite so magically stoopid here as "Cameltoe," the unstoppably hilarious hit that highlighted 2003's "So Stylistic." However, Jessica Suthiwong, Brenda Lovell and Cat Hartwell (backed by songwriter-producers Matt Goias and Fancy) still express their J.J. Fad-style streetwise feminism while getting their jollies running though hip-hop, Miami bass, dance hall and electro-clash beats.
After four decades of peerless soul music, Van Morrison has nothing left to prove. No wonder he complains that "you gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay" on "Magic Time:" Even when he coasts, his deeply embedded mastery of blues, jazz, Celtic and R & amp;B styles ensures a consistently high baseline.
"Magic Time" holds few surprises, and Morrison knows this: "You can call it nostalgia, I don't mind," he sings in the title track. With three covers of jazz standards, two songs ("Gypsy in My Soul" and "The Lion This Time") that allude to his 1972 classic "Saint Dominic's Preview," and several doses of Celtic mysticism and misanthropy, he's revisiting styles and themes that have long preoccupied him.
However, it's hard to complain when Morrison sings gently rolling ballads as beautifully as he does "Celtic New Year" and "Stranded," or swinging blues as locked-in as "Evening Train" and "I'm Confessin'."
'FROM THE GROUND UP'
Having successfully peddled CDs by established artists in its ubiquitous coffee shops, Starbucks is moving into breaking new groups. How ironic that the first band being promoted by the caffeine kingdom, a female fivesome with a pretentious name, makes you want to take a nap.
There's nothing distinctive about this fatuous folk collection -- not the stridently strummed arrangements, not the half-baked songs, nor the officious voice of uni-named front woman Cassidy. Starbucks' taste is clearly in its brews.
'THIS SIDE OF THE MOON'
(Emergent/Hog County) ssss
By all rights Elizabeth Cook's major-label debut, 2002's "Hey Y'all," should have made her a star. Instead, it just earned the singer a trip back to the independent ranks. The disappointment obviously didn't dull her artistry -- "This Side of the Moon" is an even better album.
Cook makes no attempt to take the edge off her bracingly straight-up country. The Florida native's industrial-strength vocal twang and Loretta Lynn spunkiness enliven such breezy cuts as "Cupid," "All We Need Is Love" and "Somebody's Gotta Do It."
But Cook -- who co-wrote 12 of the 13 songs, with the other by her husband, estimable Nashville roots-rocker Tim Carroll -- is also a thoughtful and deeply affecting balladeer. When she lays out for her man just what the consequences of a breakup would be, in "Before I Go That Far," her mix of anguish and resolve is absolutely killer. Country doesn't get any better.
'DOWN THIS ROAD'
(ACR) sss 1/2
In this case, nepotism is not such a bad thing: For the first signing to his BMG-distributed ACR label -- that's Alan's Country Records -- superstar Alan Jackson has chosen a husband-and-wife duo that includes his nephew.
Adam and Shannon Wright make the most of this golden opportunity. As you would expect from a Jackson-connected project, "Down This Road" is no-frills country full of homespun, low-key charm. Adam and Shannon split the lead vocals and harmonize over music accented by dobro, steel and piano. Their self-penned songs, meanwhile, exude a timeless simplicity, from the bluesy, down-home groove of "You're in Georgia Now" to the urgent inquiries of "Do You Love Me?" and the tangy honky-tonk of "Hole in My Pocket."
Jackson makes just one, unobtrusive appearance on harmony vocals, wisely letting the spotlight stay on this talented twosome.
'I THINK IT'S GOING TO RAIN TODAY'
How many singers make a rock recording that sells nearly two million copies and walk away to be a jazz vocalist? Curtis Stigers, whose self-titled hit came in 1991, is one.
Stigers is, surprisingly, not a high-voltage artist. He's an expressive character who looks for some heart in a song and often plumbs it. The Idaho native shows an independent-cuss view of songs, expanding the usual suspects here to include ditties by Randy Newman, Sting and Tom Waits.
He shows an affinity for country on Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and gets folksy and direct on the title track, a poignant Newman original.
Waits' "In Between Love" carries the emotional oomph of old Tin Pan Alley standards, and Willie Dixon's "My Babe" gives Stigers some soulful credentials. Keyboardist Larry Goldings is a big collaborator here, creating the sympathetic backing with a revolving cast that includes bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson.
'LA ESPADA DE LA NOCHE'
Ted Nash and Odeon
Jazz was born in a cradle of many cultures, and the music's future is likely to be full of cultural excursions to new realms.
Ted Nash pulls off such a fusion. He uses a primarily tango vibe to create a kind of film-noir jazz that's engaging and probably even better live than on disc.
The son of trombonist Dick Nash and nephew of swing saxophonist Ted Nash, this saxophonist has recently made a career swinging with the backward-looking Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the forward-careening Jazz Composers Collective.
His band here is anchored by Clark Gayton on tuba, trombone and baritone horn. Violinist Nathalie Bonin and accordionist Bill Schimmel enhance the tango feeling, while drummer Matt Wilson is a jazz cat with Latin moves.
The session makes for good bullfighting music. The quintet covers two Latin jazz standards, "A Night in Tunisia" and "Tico Tico," with tango high in its consciousness. But elements of klezmer and traditional New Orleans jazz creep in, forming a worldly stew.
Knight Ridder Newspapers