Ben Harper (Virgin)
Grade: B
Although Harper's latest batch of songs could easily have fit on a single disc, the rootsy singer-songwriter went for the double-album concept, placing the quieter ballads on one disc and the harder-edged material on another.
While a few of the quiet tracks have their charms, such as the sweet and tender "Morning Yearning" and "Happy Everafter In Your Eyes," too many are drowsy and unbaked, with syrupy strings poured on too liberally.
Far better are the nine songs on the grittier, louder disc, featuring Harper's blend of rock, soul and funk and trademark guitar slide-work . Many of the tunes sound like musical homages, with the Indian instrumentation of "Better Way" a tip of the hat to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, the title track a nod to Prince, and "Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating" having the rough and ready feel of mid-'60s Dylan.
The emotional high point is certainly "Black Rain," where Harper, channeling the feel of Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'," spits venom about a number of injustices and tragedies, from Hurricane Katrina to the war in Iraq.
-- Martin Bandyke, Detroit Free Press
Kenny Rogers (Capitol Nashville)
Grade: A
The unmistakable, warm, slightly gruff voice of this music legend envelops you like a comfortable blanket as he weaves his brief, emotional tales of life like a master storyteller. The voice seems as strong as ever and, in a refreshing surprise, the songs are better than those Rogers has been foisting on his fans over the past several years.
He returns here to the basics of delivering contemporary lyrics with a heartfelt realism that is as convincing as it is entertaining. The workmanlike melodies play second fiddle to the stories, yet the instrumental work is quite good and occasionally outstanding.
It's sometimes hard to remember that this country music master got his start in light rock, while he croons modern, fresh ballads with just a couple of slightly up-tempo numbers thrown in. It seems that he has touched all bases in his career, winning a multitude of awards with 61 albums along the way.
-- Ken Rosenbaum, Toledo Blade
Juvenile (Atlantic)Grade: B
New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne's Tha Carter II, released late last year, made a great leap forward into maturity. Unfortunately, Wayne's former Cash Money labelmate Terius Gray hasn't quite followed suit. "Reality Check" intends to be a serious affair, from its dedication to Katrina victims to the arresting video for "Get Ya Hustle On" shot in the devastated lower Ninth Ward and featuring schoolchildren wearing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Ray Nagin masks.
And to be sure, "Reality" finds Juvenile's roughneck growl in fine fettle, even if he's not hooked up with anything as infectious as his trademark non sequitur hit, 1998's "Ha." But though Juve still proves himself a master of Crescent City bounce music on tracks such as "Loose Booty" and "Way I Be Leanin'," thematically, they're still standard-issue gangsta rap.
And what's most disappointing -- and depressing -- is that, when he commands attention with "Get Ya Hustle On" on the subject of natural disasters and government negligence, the best he can do is suggest using FEMA checks to finance careers in drug dealing.
-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Neko Case (Anti)
Grade: A-
Neko Case's dazzling voice should be familiar from her show-stopping contributions to the New Pornographers' records and four impressive solo albums, but on "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," Case ups the ante by writing the best set of songs of her career. Spooky, desperate and often nonlinear, songs such as "That Teenage Feeling" and "Margaret vs. Pauline" are as drenched in mystery as they are in reverb: think Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" as used in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."
"That echo chorus lied to me with its 'Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,'" Case sings, and those "hold ons" become alluring siren calls, both for the character within the song and for the listener. With tasteful contributions from Calexico, the Sadies, the Band's Garth Hudson, and Flat Duo Jets' Dexter Romweber, and with luscious backing vocals from Kelly Hogan, "Fox Confessor" brings the goods.
-- Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
Th' Legendary ShackShakers (Yep Roc)
Grade: B
"Pandelirium" is a most fitting coinage to describe what Th' Legendary ShackShakers stir up on their third full-length album. In other words, they take an even deeper and wilder ride into the world of Southern gothic.
Imagine peeking into a carnival tent and seeing a freak show that's an outlandish mix of the sacred and the sleazy. It would all be a bit much if the band's punkishly intense collision of blues, country, rock and even polka didn't have its own not-unwitty personality. And if front man J.D. Wilkes, himself a charismatic blend of Pentecostal preacher and snake-oil salesman, didn't deliver these tales of the weird and the grotesque with both maniacal glee and a wink.
-- Nick Christiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

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