Carly Simon (Columbia)
Grade: B
Singer-songwriter Carly Simon has generally put her artistic needs ahead of commercial ones even when it means butting heads with her record label.
She agreed to last year's standards set "Moonlight Serenade," a formulaic effort. It sold well, though, so Sony asked for another. But this time Simon is flexing her creative muscles, and what began as a conceptual album of lullabies has evolved into something more ambitious that she calls "lulling."
All right, so Simon's not the best saleswoman. "Lulling" implies narcoleptic, but "Into White," which takes its title from old boyfriend Cat Stevens' oldie, is much too striking to saddle with such a term.
Instead, "Into White," a broad collection of folk and pop tunes, standards and two originals like the aptly-named "Quiet Evening," is a close cousin to her 1971 LP "Anticipation" and is notable for its stripped to the essence thematic approach. The arrangements favor simple acoustic instrumentation and Simon's closely-miked, perfectly enunciated vocals. Rather than take the easy route with familiar songs such as "Scarborough Fair" or the "Black Orpheus" theme, "Manha de Carnaval," Simon finds the truth within. The organic effect is akin to casually strolling in a beautiful garden with a master storyteller as she warmly leans into your ear, telling comforting tales of long ago. Plus, Simon's sublime redo of ex-husband James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes," sung with their children Ben and Sally, may well break your heart.
--Howard Cohen, Miami Herald
Switchfoot (Columbia)
Grade: A
On Switchfoot's third major release, "Oh! Gravity," the band's bright modern rock sound maintains its indie rock spirit but still sounds tailor-made for radio airplay.
But Switchfoot seems to carry more substance and wit than most of their peers.
Frontman and songwriter Jon Foreman doesn't like what he sees in the world today -- greed and avarice are among his favorite targets -- but the music doesn't offer complaints so much as it tries to rise above such hollow pursuits as money and adulation with brains and humor.
On the fantastic "American Dream" Foreman quips, "When success is equated with excess. The ambition for excess wrecks us. This ain't my American Dream. I want to live and die for bigger things."
The rhythm of bassist Tim Foreman and drummer Chad Butler is rock solid and Jerome Fontamillas (keyboards) and Andrew Shirley (guitars) round out one of the most upbeat, intelligent units you're likely to hear.
Standouts include the snappy title track, the driving "Dirty Second Hands," "Awakening," the cheeky "Amateur Lovers" and the lilting "Yesterdays."
This is an outstanding record in every sense.
--John Kosik, Associated Press
Omarion (Sony Urban/Epic/T.U.G.)
Grade: C
His former boy-band mates B5 are stuck in heavy rotation on Radio Disney, but the title of Omarion's sophomore album suggests the newly-of-age singer has more mature fish to fry. To be more specific, this disc is a transparent move to position King O as R & amp;B's younger, hipper alternative to Usher.
Yet for all his pillow talk, the tune that sent Usher into the stratosphere was "Yeah!" an electrifying club track for which there is no equivalent here. "Beg for It," with its whip-crack percussion and excitable vocals, tries hard to be that song but still sounds secondhand. That leaves the balladry, an area where Omarion has undoubtedly upped his game. "Midnight" and "Do It" are atmospheric improvements on the saccharine slow jams of his debut, and the Timbaland-produced "Ice Box" is the highlight of O's admittedly brief career, as clouds of refrigerated synth billow around his indifference: "I got this ice box where my heart used to be/I'm so cold."
But while the chill of "Ice Box" is inspired, too much of "21" creeps past at the same glacial pace, with not enough melody or vocal skill to keep it interesting. Omarion still seems rightly cast as Usher's successor; however, this uneven, underwhelming effort should give the old man more time.
--Dan LeRoy, Hartford Courant
Graham Coxon (Parolphone)
Grade: A
He may not be collaborating with rappers or filtering his music through hip cartoon stand-ins, like former Blur band mate and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn, but Graham Coxon is doing well for himself all the same.
On his sixth solo album, Coxon lays down virtually every instrument himself, often pummeling the Britpop sound of his former group until it passes out and comes to in 1977.
With songs like "Don't Let Your Man Know" and "Gimme Some Love," Coxon conjures the Buzzcocks and Generation X, though his playing is far crisper and less emotional than what would have been acceptable in the early days of punk.
When he's not practicing his sneer, Coxon is pretty successful as a pop singer. "Flight to the Sea," despite its trite lyrics, is a workable blend of flute and acoustic guitar, while "Just a State of Mind" slows things down long enough for Coxon to ponder whether love is lonelier than heartbreak.
It's probably the closest he gets to being clever, but this isn't a record that's overly concerned with trying new things. Lots of singers set their dating woes to hard guitars and hummable melodies -- Coxon just does it better than most.
--Kenneth Partridge, Hartford Courant
Swan Lake (Jagjaguwar)
Grade: C
Swan Lake is a Canadian indie rock super-trio featuring Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown), Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) and Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes). Now then, please check your awestruck grin at the door. Each belongs to at least one beloved band, so it's fair to hope that the sum of their parts would yield even greater results. Alas, it's not so. On the whole, Swan Lake suffers from too-many-cooks syndrome, as all three songwriters run amok without anyone to keep them in check.
We're left with "Beast Moans," a muddled mess of convoluted textures that is at times, frankly, unlistenable. When the band decides to focus on writing songs, such as Bejar's "The Freedom," we glimpse the realized potential of three of Canada's finest. Most of the time, though, "Beast Moans" is an overextended, unfocused effort that rarely deviates from tempo or dynamic. Wolf Parade writes anthems, and Destroyer tells stories; Swan Lake gets lost in a sonic tapestry that should have augmented those assets. Instead the band's members forget to do what they do best. There is consolation: Krug's "All Fires" is one of the year's finest (and most heartbreaking) songs, but when the dust settles on "Beast Moans," it's one of only a few songs worth playing over and over.
--Todd Olmstead, Hartford Courant

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