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Published: 3/15/2008

Sounds: Alan Jackson shows off songwriting skills

The sheer scope of this album is breathtaking from the outset. It clocks in at a extremely generous 71 minutes and covers 17 songs. And for the first time in his career, Jackson is the sole writer of every number on an album.

After sales of more than 49 million albums, Jackson proves he still has plenty of inspiration left. He wrote 21 of his 31 No. 1 hits, but there'll likely be a couple more in this package. The first single, "Small Town Southern Man," is already rising on the charts, and the album itself is atop the Billboard 200.

Jackson continues in fine voice, with his mellow, resonant baritone easily handling a wide assortment of two-steps and ballads. There's a hint of raucous life in the uptempo title track and plenty of maudlin emotion in "I Wish I Could Back Up" and a couple other tunes. "Never Loved Before," with vocal help from Martina McBride, is a rockin' hoot.

The package occasionally comes close to, but manages to avoid, too much mushy sentimentality and changes pace often, mixing in some interesting melodies. It's a fine batch of traditional country from a master.

- KEN ROSENBAUM

Best American band right now?

Drive-By Truckers, anyone?

The Athens, Ga., band's most recent release is a classic that much like Bruce Springsteen's 2007 disc, "Magic," captures the American condition through adept storytelling and a keen understanding of the country's most rootsy musical styles.

Arranged like a double album, with four "sides" over one CD, the Truckers explore the lonely angst and subtle joys that come with living in the heart of this country. Don't call it "Southern rock" either, because while the band might be headquartered there, the music is purely Americana.

As a songwriting collective, Drive-By Truckers features three distinct writers and singers: Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Shannon Tucker. Each of their approaches melds perfectly while remaining distinct. Hood is especially effective dissecting the American condition on tracks like "The Righteous Path," the haunting "You and Your Crystal Meth," and the gentle, evocative closer "The Monument Valley."

Cooley and Tucker weigh in with some excellent contributions as well, and over 19 songs "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" serves up a generous helping of everything from country weepers to Crazy Horse-like rockers.

Lyrically all three cut to the quick with descriptive language, believable characters, and a true feel for how the middle and lower class folks in this country live and talk.

- ROD LOCKWOOD

She hit big with "Control," and now she's back with some "Discipline" - a 22-track disc that mixes in conversational snippets between the music.

The title itself can have sundry meanings, of course, and musically Jackson refuses to be pigeonholed, incorporating songs that are ripe for the dance floor or a romantic interlude.

She kicks off with the sultry, funky strut of "Feedback" with a bottom-heavy arrangement and harmonies, then cools down for the slow but muscular "Luv."

Through the disc she maintains that range, embracing the danceable and vibrant "Rock With U" with an electro-style keyboard line, and the grooving, sinuous, and rather sultry "Can't B Good," as well as gentle ballads including "Never Letchu Go."

That mix of bumping beats and a softer tone on lush, slower songs has certainly put new fire in Jackson's career, with the disc entering the Billboard 200 album chart at No. 1.

- RICHARD PATON



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