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Listening Room: Ben Harper, Lyle Lovett and more...
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, “Lifeline” (Virgin) *** ½
Spending a week recording an album at the end of a long world tour — including Paris — does not sound like a recipe for vibrant Americana. But that’s what California-born singer-songwriter Ben Harper and his five-piece band have accomplished with “Lifeline,” his 11th album and the follow-up to last year’s intriguing but bloated two-CD set “Both Sides of the Gun.” On “Lifeline,” Harper and company turn fatigue and homesickness into nothing less than beautiful soul music with the rootsy edge of six guys playing together. Sounding more like, says, Memphis than Paris, these 11 songs are filled with references — Van Morrison on “In the Colors,” Delaney & Bonnie on the swivel-hipped “Put it On Me” and the Black Crowes (a band not immune to their own sources) on the gritty “Heart of Matters” and the emotive “Needed You Tonight,” with Harper wailing about lost love over Jason Yates’ dynamic piano patterns and ex-Wallflower Michael Ward’s biting guitar. “Younger Than Today” takes a slightly trippy turn, while “Say You Will” starts a capella and builds into a spirited Baptist fervor by song’s end. There’s power in all of that, but Harper brings the album to a genuinely stunning close with an instrumental “Paris Sunshine #7” that leads into “Lifeline’s” title track, a solo piece with a performance so emotional it merits comparisons to any vintage soul great you can think of. In the opening “Fight Outta You,” Harper laments that “There’s always someone younger/Someone with more hunger,” but on “Lifeline” he and the Innocent Criminals show there’s plenty of bite left in their game, too.
Lyle Lovett, “It’s Not Big It’s Large” (Lost Highway)***
The high-coiffed Texas troubadour’s 13th album is large ... and, as is typical of Lovett, wide. He and his cohorts cover a lot of ground on these 12 tracks, from the brassy big band of Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” to Lovett’s atmosphere-filled adaptation of the spiritual “I Will Rise Up,” the bluegrass two-stepper “Up in Indiana,” ringing front-porch ballads like “Don’t Cry a Tear” and “The Alley Song,” and the twangy, fatalistic fun of “All Downhill.” And “South Texas Girl” deftly blends a Coldplay-style hook with a pretty country melody. Large or big, it’s definitely good.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
Paul Anka, “Classic Songs, My Way” (Decca) — The singer and songwriter celebrates his 50th anniversary in show business with Michael Buble and covers of songs by Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Joni Mitchell and the Killers.
Atreyu, “Lead Sails Paper Anchor” (Hollywood) — The California headbangers unleash the songs they’ve been previewing on this summer’s Family Values Tour.
Collective Soul, “Afterwords” (El Music Group) — The Atlanta rockers are releasing their seventh studio album strictly via Target stores and on the Internet.
Debbie Davies, “Blues Blast” (Telarc) — The bluesrock guitarist welcomes guest appearances by Tab Benoit, Coco Montoya and Charlie Musselwhite on her latest outing.
Terri Hendrix, “The Spiritual Kind” (Wilory) — The Texas singer-songwriter celebrates her 10th album with Dixie Chicks parent Lloyd Maines producing.
Mink, “Mink” (Spitfire/ Fontana) — The debut album by the Australian-American rockers whose “Pressure Pressure” was ESPN’s theme for the 2006 baseball playoffs.
Oliver Mtukudzi, “Tsimba Itsoka” (Heads Up Africa) — The Zimbabwean Afro-pop star continues to forge into his fourth decade of music-making with this 12-song set.
N.O.R.E., “No Reality” (Thugged Out Militainment/ Babygrande) — The New Yorkturned-Miami MC returns to rap with the first of two planned solo sets, working with longtime partner in crime Capone as well as Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Three 6 Mafia and a peace-making pairing of Jadakiss and Kurupt.
Northern State, “Can I Keep This Pen?” (Ipecac) — The Canadian trio flees the major label world with an album co-produced by the Beastie Boys’ Adam “Adrock” Yauch and Shitake Monkey’s Chuck Brody.
Raekwon, “Presents ... Ice Water: Polluted Water” (Babygrande) — The Wu Tang Clan member showcases his Ice Water crew, with Method Man, Busta Rhymes, Three 6 Mafia and others guesting.
Scorpions, “Humanity — Hour 1” (New Door/UMe) — The German headbangers return with American hitmakers Desmond Child and James Michael at the production helm of their 21st studio album.
the subdudes, “Street Symphony” (Back Porch) — The New Orleans-founded quintet lets some post-Katrina politics seep into its third album since returning to active duty in 2002.
Various Artists, “Strength in Numbers” (Disturbing Tha Peace/Island) — The third all-star compilation from Ludacris’ rap label features Bobby Valentino, Chingy, Block Xchange and a multitude of other MCs.
VHS or Beta, “Bring on the Comets” (Astralwerks) — The Kentucky indie rockers shoot for the stars on their third full-length album.
Yung Joc, “Hustlenomics” (Bad Boy) — The Atlanta rapper’s second album boasts a guest list that includes the Game, Snoop Dogg, Trick Daddy, Pharrell and more.
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