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Listening Room: Neil Diamond, Gavin DeGraw and more...
Neil Diamond, “Home Before Dark” (Columbia) ***
Neil Diamond may be “Forever in Blue Jeans” — or, by his own admission, sequins — but the pop and Middle of the road icon is not averse to change. On “Home Before Dark” he returns to the path he trod on 2005’s “12 Songs,” a stark, delicate, no-drumsallowed approach that strips Diamond’s songs to their bare essence — and to good effect. With the “12 Songs” team intact — Grammy-winning producer Rick Rubin and players from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Beck’s backing band — Diamond delivers another 12 songs that make “Home Before Dark” even better than its somewhat tentative predecessor, with a broader array of moods and an audibly greater confidence in this particular process. Diamond is notably more upbeat and playful this time out, cutting loose(er) on tracks such as “No Words,” “The Power of Two,” “Forgotten,” “Pretty Amazing Grace” and “Don’t Go There,” each of which would sound like any of his vintage ’70s and ’80s hits if they were electrified and arranged with some degree of the bombast and, well, schmaltz that was his stockin-trade at the time. “Slow it Down,” meanwhile, lets him try out a talking-blues style. The acoustic setting also serves “Home Before Dark’s” quieter settings, including the title track and “If I Don’t See You Again,” which bookend the album, and “Another Day (That Time Forgot),” a duet with the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines whose brooding, downcast quality would make Lou Reed proud. Diamond sings mostly about loves lost and gained here, but he also waxes about his relationship with music; “I couldn’t get the music off my mind,” he declares in “One More Bite of the Apple,” declaring that he’s still “got some things to be said/going ‘round in my head.” This setting, however, continues to let him say them in an even more compelling way.
Gavin DeGraw, “Gavin DeGraw” (J Records) **1/2
Gavin DeGraw’s 2003 debut, “Chariot,” was a slow-building platinum hit — which means his sophomore outing comes with a spotlight already shining on it. It’s once again a deft weave of rock, pop and soul influences, not unlike a Maroon 5 or Rob Thomas album but with a bit more emphasis on the rock side thanks to producer Howard Benson (Daughtry, P.O.D., My Chemical Romance). The 12-song set is filled with biting guitar chords driving taut and tuneful melodies that lend crunch to the first single, “In Love With a Girl,” “Cheated on Me” and “She Holds A Key.” But DeGraw hasn’t abandoned his balladeer leaning, either, emoting with heart-wringing longing on “Young Love” and “Let It Go.” It’s a deft straddle between craft and passion, sure to win over the “One Tree Hill” crowd that made DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be” such a smash.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
Mindi Abair, “Stars” (Peak/Concord): The jazz saxophonist who’s worked with Josh Groban, Backstreet Boys, Duran Duran and others, includes five vocal pieces on her latest release.
Clay Aiken, “On My Way Here” (19 Entertainment/ RCA): The second-season American Idol and “Sampalot” star’s fourth album returns to original music after the 2006 covers set “A Thousand Different Ways.”
Barenaked Ladies, “Snacktime” (Desperation): The Canadian quintet turns its combination of humor and songcraft to children’s songs on this 24-track collection.
Dierks Bentley, “Greatest Hits/Every Mile a Memory 2003-2008” (Capitol Nashville): The country star let his fans “produce” this retrospective, which includes two new songs and some live tracks.
T-Bone Burnett, “Tooth of Crime” (Nonesuch): The Grammy-winning producer bares his long-in-the-making companion piece to playwright Sam Shephard’s “Tooth of Crime (Second Dance).”
Elvis Costello & the Imposters, “Momofuku” (Lost Highway): The British veteran’s latest surfaces on CD two weeks after it rolled out on vinyl and digital download.
Craig David, “Trust Me” (Reprise): The British R&B singer recorded his fourth album in Cuba, incorporating the island’s rhythm into his sound.
Firewater, “The Golden Hour” (Bloodshot): The result of Firewater Tod A’s three-year sabbatical and travels through the Middle East and Asia.
Tim Fite, “Fair Ain’t Fair” (Anti-): The Brooklyn “hip-hop folkie” offers up his anxiously awaited follow-up to 2005’s “Gone Ain’t Gone” and a subsequent series of web-only releases.
Josh Groban, “Awake Live” (143/Reprise): To their credit, the heartthrob tenor’s fans do not drown out Groban’s vocals on this CD/DVD souvenir of his live show.
Sierra Hull, “Secrets” (Rounder): The 16-year-old mandolin prodigy is backed by a who’s-who of bluegrass players on her debut album.
Toby Keith, “35 Biggest Hits” (Show Dog/UMe): The title says it all, though one of these “hits” is actually a brand new song, “She’s a Hottie.”
Midnight Oil, “Diesel and Dust: Legacy Edition” (Columbia/Legacy): The retired Australian group’s biggest and best album now sports a bonus track and a DVD documentary about its 1986 Blackfella/Whitefella tour of indigenous Australian lands.
Millencolin, “Machine 15” (Epitaph): The Swedish punk group brings the noise again, three years after “Kingwood.”
Mint Condition, “e-Life” (CagedBird): The Minnesota R&B favorites’ first album in three years includes collaborations with Anthony Hamilton, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Lil Brother’s Ponte.
Nortec Collective, “Bostich + Fussible/Tijuana Sound Machine” (Nacional): The Grammy-nominated Latin electronic troupe joins forces with a pair of dance music visionaries for a sonic summit.
The Republic Tigers, “Keep Color” (Chop Shop/ Atlantic): The quintet from Kansas City took its name from frontman Kenn Jankowski’s high school mascot.
Charlotte Sometimes, “The Both of Us” (Geffen): The New York songstress adds her voice to the rapidly crowded female singer-songwriter community on her full-length debut.
Keith Sweat, “Just Me” (Atco): The New Jack Soul pioneer’s latest is his first set of all-new material since 2002’s “Rebirth.”
Aaron Tippin, “He Believed: A Son’s Tribute” (Cracker Barrel): Country singer Tippin pays homage to his father on this exclusive set for the Cracker Barrel chain.
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