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Published: Saturday, 6/21/2008

Neil Diamond on a different note

If Neil Diamond still means to you Cracklin Rosie or Cherry, Cherry, this disc will be a surprise, to put it mildly. The follow-up to 2005 s 12 Songs, and produced once more by Rick Rubin, it is an understated collection of well-crafted songs and a performance by Diamond that positions him as one of today s premier singer/songwriters.

There s nothing flashy here, either in the writing and performing, or the arrangements. The music is allowed to speak for itself. The voice is instantly familiar, but somehow different at the same time. His vocals have a more weathered, lived-in texture, his delivery more relaxed and unforced.

The songs are melodic, the words reflecting experience. It s a combination that, at its best, works wonderfully, as on the lead single Pretty Amazing Grace or his duet with the Dixie Chicks Natalie Maines, Another Day (That Time Forgot).

Diamond closes out the disc with a highlight, a gorgeous and slow title track, just him and a guitar, accented by strings and flutes. It s the perfect ending to a disc that predominantly stands as a testament to the talents of a performer who has the courage, and ability, to strike out on new paths rather than rest on fading glories.

RICHARD PATON

With a delightfully twisted world view that is funny, tragic, and steeped in irony, Eef Barlzelay s take on alt-rock and country is a thing to behold.

His second solo disc apart from the band Clem Snide kicks off with a crunchy rocker that sounds like third generation Neil Young Barzelay is blessed (or cursed) with a love-it-or-leave-it quaver in his voice and then he veers all over the musical road map.

The first track, Could Be Worse, contains an opening line for the ages: Show me the bright side and I ll look until my eyes catch fire, and a chorus, I can t find comfort in the fact that it could be worse that lingers long after the song is over.

Barezelay often takes the stance of a lovable loser, much like Mark Everett of The Eels, and it s a persona that he wears well. Lose Big is a disc for folks who like their rock delivered with heaping dollops of irony and humor.

ROD LOCKWOOD

Larry Vuckovich is one of the world s more underrated jazz artists, a pianist who brings heart and energy to what he does on the keyboards, in addition to his talents as a composer and as a band leader.

This is a gorgeous follow-up to Vuckovich s critically acclaimed 2006 CD, Street Scene, which placed No. 1 on XM Satellite Radio s Jazz Channel for six weeks and was a Top 10 hit in JazzWeek polls and college radio charts. Street Scene was Vuckovich s first tribute to the classic American film noir genre of the 1930s to 1950s, which he grew fond of after his family emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s.

There s no holding back on this disc, which includes a number of original songs plus reinterpretations from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

TOM HENRY

With his 14th album, Robillard reaches back to his roots. Then he goes even farther back. An award-winning guitarist, he got his start nationally when he formed the popular group Roomful of Blues in 1967, which later led the jump blues evolution.

They re still going strong, but Robillard left them to form other groups in 1970. He stretched the blues envelope every time out, and this album simply shreds it.

He leans more heavily on the older jazz influences that always seemed present in his earlier work, and now mixes in heavy elements of big-band swing. His smooth vocals punctuate the guitar work, and he has added a fine cast of backup guests.

Robillard always claimed there was a fine line between jazz and blues. With these 10 outstanding numbers, including several jazz and swing standards, you d be hard-pressed to find where one leaves off and the other begins.

KEN ROSENBAUM

Range, color, power -- Rebecca Lynn Howard s got them. Her new disc, No Rules, is a sampler showcasing her vigorous singer/songwriter talent.

The first three cuts are soul-saturated R&B, with gospel-style chorus and old-school organ, horns, harmonica, and bass. And she proves her chops on country/pop, contemporary, honky tonk, and blues reminiscent of the great Rory Block ( One as Two Can Be ).

Howard doesn t plow new ground but what she s spaded into is fertile. A couple of real charmers are Sing Cause I Love To, a twangy lope about the joyful music jams her parents hosted on Saturday nights when she was a kid, and Life of a Dollar, a sweet tale of what a buck means to the dozen or so folk who possess it for a while.

TAHREE LANE



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