Lenny Kravitz: 'Black and White America' (Roadrunner)
Lenny Kravitz has never been the best album artist. Often his CDs have featured several stellar singles weighed down with equal numbers of lackluster songs. But his latest effort, "Black and White America" is one of his better albums.
This time out, Kravitz is in a particularly retro mode (nothing new there). He slams his way through the fab funk rock of "Come On Get It" and gets his '70s superfreak-styled soul on with the title track (a personal look at race relations and how they have progressed since the '60s). "Push" ends the CD on a high note with its pleasant piano-based pop soul.
These songs all could be singles — showing once again that Kravitz always comes up with an ace or two on every album. The rest of the CD doesn't match those songs, but there are plenty of solid tracks. "In The Black" somehow successfully merges Prince-like synth-funk with vintage glam and psychedelia. "Liquid Jesus" puts a modern spin on a cool Curtis Mayfield-ish soul tune. "Stand" (not the Sly Stone tune) is an infectious bit of Paisley-ish soul-pop, while the riffy pop of "Everything" gives the CD another upbeat moment. There are also a few misses (including the collaboration with Jay Z and DJ Military on "Boogie Drop"), but "Black and White America" suggests that Kravitz is on top of his game as he moves into the third decade of his career. — Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Prince, the Beatles.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: 'Mirror Traffic' (Matador)
With "Mirror Traffic," Stephen Malkmus has made his most accessible, enjoyable post-Pavement album.
Teaming with fellow '90s indie icon Beck, who produces, Malkmus and his tight band the Jicks have crafted a collection of easy-to-like pop songs that avoid the prog-rock ramblings of Malkmus's most recent projects for garage rock, angular pop and even a little folkie sounding stuff. The clean production puts Malkmus's obtuse, oft-funny lyrics front and center, sometimes creating laughs, others producing odd, baffling images, which make the record fun in a what's he talking about way. Among the best of the 15 tracks on the overstuffed album are the catchy opener "Tigers," the raunchy "Senator," the muted "Share The Red" and the best of the guitar songs, "Brain Gallop." — L. Kent Wolgamott
Buy if you like: R.E.M., Guided By Voices.
Dave Stewart: 'The Blackbird Diaries' (Surfdog/Razor & Tie)
Dave Stewart has covered a lot of musical ground in a career that began as one half of the Eurythmics (with Annie Lennox) and has gone on to include a half dozen solo albums and numerous contributions to movie soundtrack albums.
With "The Blackbird Diaries," he's exploring American roots music — with stops on rock and roll, soul and country-ish tunes. It turns out that for a guy who originally made his name with synth-pop, Stewart has a good grasp of these styles. The rock comes busting out in songs like the Dylan-esque romp "Can't Get You Out Of My Head," the brawny Stone-ish "So Long Ago" and the gritty "Beast Called Fame."
The country-inflected moments come on songs like the steel-guitar-inflected "Country Wine" and sweet ballad, "Worth Waiting For" (a tune co-written by Stewart and the aforementioned Bob Dylan). As for the soul, it's woven through most of the songs. Stewart's vocals — he sounds like a less craggy Keith Richards — aren't anything special, but he gets help on several tunes from Stevie Nicks, Martina McBride, Colbie Caillat and the Secret Sisters.
And Stewart's songwriting is sharp here, and the treatments of the material are usually spot on — enough instrumental touches to bring color to the songs without cluttering up the music. It's enough to hope that Stewart will have a sequel to "The Blackbird Diaries" up his sleeve at some point. — Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Bob Dylan, the Eagles.
Ana Popovic: 'Unconditional' (Electro Groove)
Press materials for "Unconditional" tout Ana Popovic as one of the world's best female guitar players.
That much is true. But it leaves out the fact that over the course of six CDs, this Serbian-borne artist has also grown into a good enough songwriter to be considered a leading member of the blues scene. "Unconditional" has several first-rate tracks including "Count Me In," a driving tune, and "Work Song," another rocker with a bluesy Southern rock feel. "Fearless Blues" is a tangy rocker with touches of gospel and some stinging acoustic slide guitar.
Popovic also shows a soulful side on the hearty "Reset Rewind," while she brings a tasty bit of funk to "Your Love Ain't Real."
A few songs don't quite connect, such as the title song (which has a nice feel, but a pedestrian melody) and "Voodoo Woman" (a standard New Orleans shuffle), but overall "Unconditional" is a solid all-around effort that should raise Popovic's profile among blues enthusiasts. — Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Koko Taylor, Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
T Bird and the Breaks: 'Never Get Out Of This Funk Alive' (self-released)
Austin, Texas, may be known more for country and blues, but T Bird and the Breaks must have soaked up some genuine funk somewhere between T Bird's home state of Massachusetts and the group's arrival in the Lone Star state. On its second CD, "Never Get Out Of This Alive," the group has developed the songwriting chops to go with the greasy grooves that are a minimum requirement of funk. What stands out (along with the festive vibe of most of the songs here) are the melodic hooks that make songs like "I Gets My Boogie On," "The Piano Joint" and the title track as listenable as they are danceable. With titles like "Monkey In A Tree," "Rock That Skull" and "Paranoia For 'Ya," this clearly isn't the most cerebral CD in the world, but it's just right for anyone whose mindset fits the one-nation-under-a-groove philosophy. — Alan Sculley
Buy if you like: Sly and the Family Stone, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.
Patti Smith: 'Outside Society' (Arista/Columbia/Legacy)
This career-covering 18 song set opens with Patti Smith's famous line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." That sets the stage for her version of "Gloria" and ends with the gospel of "Trampin.'" Those songs span 30 years, from 1975 to 2004, three decades in which Smith, in collaboration with guitarist Lenny Kaye, has created a personal, strong body of work that combines her poetry with music that drew on the 1960s, passed through punk in the 1970s and reached a maturity, with anthems like "People Have The Power." Smith's also a master of the cover, adding her improvised observations to a New York jangly take on the Byrds' classic "So You Want To Be a Rock N Roll Star" and then doing the best version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" I've heard other than the original. Fans likely have all these songs. But this package is perfect for an 80-minute dose of Patti; you can't hear "Dancing Barefoot" and "Summer Cannibals" too many times. — L. Kent Wolgamott
Buy if you like: The Pretenders, Cat Power.