Jan 23, 2007

New Music Review

By Kurt B. Reighley
Special to MSN Music

Hooray! After the post-holiday slump, the world of new releases starts turning again this week!
First up: After countless months of subsisting on a meager diet of rarities, old album tracks and repeated viewings of "Garden State," fans of The Shins can glut themselves silly with the quartet's new third album, "Wincing The Night Away." Title aside, there's nothing cringe-worthy about the follow-up to the Portland, Ore., outfit's cherished 2004 disc, "Chutes Too Narrow." As if band leader James Mercer didn't already score enough brownie points with his dreamy tenor vocals, he merits extra kudos for top-notch songwriting. New cuts such as the gently psychedelic opener, "Sleeping Giants," and the fuzzy first single, "Phantom Limb," solidify The Shins as one of the most inventive, melodic rock bands of our era.

"The Good, the Bad & the Queen" -- isn't that the title of that new reality dating show on Lifetime? No, it's a supergroup featuring Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), Paul Simonon (the Clash), Simon Tong (the Verve) and Afro-beat percussion great Tony Allen (Fela Kuti). What, you want more star power? Fine: Danger Mouse produced. Seriously. The band's eponymous debut features a dozen moody, brooding tracks that hint at the ensemble's globe-trotting pedigree, yet feel distinctly urban -- even claustrophobic at points -- no matter what timbres or time signatures the boys use. Not quite as abashedly genius as "Parklife" or "London Calling" but infinitely more listenable than "Sandinista" or "Think Tank."

Speaking of icons: Lee Hazlewood, the gravel-voiced crank best known as Nancy Sinatra's longtime musical foil (he wrote "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'"), returns with the sublime "Cake or Death" -- but not for long, because Hazlewood claims this will be his last album. If so, he's exiting on a high note. He ropes in a mess of esoteric guest vocalists (including his own granddaughter) to complement his trademark rumble, but the emphasis is on idiosyncratic songwriting chops. If nothing else, this bizarre swan song should dump any lingering trace of what Jessica Simpson did to "Boots" from your memory cache.

And now, back to the Clinic. No, not for another round of painful injections -- just more of the dark yet beguiling fare offered up by that Liverpool quartet. Their fourth album, "Visitations," features jagged guitars and throbbing rhythms, interwoven with woodwinds and organ (hear album). Don't be put off by their mysterious surgical masks; if you're tired of pop pabulum, originals such as "Gideon" and "Family" are just what the doctor ordered.

Think Shins fans had to twiddle their thumbs for an eternity? Devotees of John Mellencamp have been sitting by, five years, waiting for the heartland rocker to emerge from his Bloomington, Ind., studio with a new album of originals. (His previous studio outing, "Trouble No More," primarily updated blues and folk classics.) Their patience is rewarded with "Freedom's Road" (hear album). If you thought Bruce Springsteen was the leading spiritual heir to the Woody Guthrie legacy, give a listen to Mellencamp's recent hit "Our Country," which combines the populist vibe of "This Land Is Your Land" with plenty of timeless roots-rock oomph.

Do you believe in reincarnation? Have you heard Kenny Wayne Shepherd? Since he started his professional career at just 16, this boy wonder has been playing the blues with chops that rival the greats. And, he puts that very notion to the test on "10 Days Out" (hear album), his soundtrack to the documentary of the same name. Shepherd traveled around the country with a portable studio, a backing band (Double Trouble) and producer Jerry Harrison, and jammed with a veritable who's who of blues survivors: B.B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown," Pinetop Perkins, Cootie Stark, Hubert Sumlin and Etta Baker. Read that list again. Yeah ... it's killer. Juxtaposed with the polished rock of Shepherd's last album, "The Place You're In," "10 Days Out" is bluer and more authentic than a warehouse of unwashed Levi's.

But Kenny Wayne was almost a senior citizen when he started singing for his supper, compared to Kristin Hersh. She assembled postpunk pioneers Throwing Muses at age 14 and now begins a new act in her storied career with her latest solo disc, "Learn to Sing Like a Star" (hear album). A clutch of soul-baring cuts and fiery, intense performances (punctuated with a couple quieter instrumentals that serve as aural sorbet), the album was produced by Hersh and mixed by two-time Grammy winner Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Victoria Williams, Lisa Germano).

Releases from two very different acts that hail from below the Mason-Dixon Line round out this week's big titles. Memphis, Tenn., hard-rock, five-piece Saliva drop "Blood Stained Love Story," their fourth album - and the first to feature new guitarist Jon Montoya (ex-Full Devil Jacket).
And last, but not least, there's "Late Night Special" (hear album), the sophomore full-length from Pretty Ricky, the Miami R&B quartet that brought you the timeless romance of, ahem, "Grind With Me."