There are times, especially during the first three songs on its debut album, that new indie-rock group Fistful of Mercy does three-part harmony so well you'll wonder if you're listening to a Crosby, Stills & Nash album.
You're not, of course, because this is a more modern album, with angst, turmoil, and inner reflection, while bringing out familiar themes of wayward love, the quest for dreams fulfilled, and the power of hope that tie us all together, generation after generation.
Fistful of Mercy consists of three solid musicians, Ben Harper on vocals and guitar, with Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison (son of the late Beatle George Harrison) alternating between vocals, guitar, keyboards, and bass. As the story goes, they forged an improbable musical relationship after bumping into each other at a Southern California skateboard park several months ago.
So they formed a folksy trio in early 2010 and are on tour in Europe, proving they're anything but slackers in the motivation and creativity departments while popping up on Conan O'Brien and on CNN, among other places. This is a fab debut of soulful harmonies and blues-infused folk guitar, with nine mostly acoustic songs that were recorded in only three days at the Carriage House in Los Angeles.
The result is a sound that's as warm and inspirational as what you'll find from trios that have been around a much, much longer time.
-- TOM HENRY
Slim has been refining his craft as a smooth jazz/blues singer, helped by his forays into the instrumental side on harmonica and flute, since the 1970s. Along the way he has turned out a half-dozen albums of his emotional, low-down songs. On his travels outside the United States, Slim often enlisted the help of new artists who could complement his work.
Now, with his seventh album, he has teamed with the Igor Prado Band, based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The four guys in the Prado band have made their mark performing their traditional style of American Chicago/jump blues to steadily growing and appreciative audiences south of the border. They are a natural fit with Slim for a slightly different jazz/blues sound rooted in Americana.
For more than 53 minutes, the 13 tracks here range from sizzling, barroom anthems to shuffling, laid-back ballads. The Chicago-style blues are just a notch from early rock 'n' roll. It's a tasty, refined mix throughout.
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
If R. Kelly's last album, "Untitled," was all about sex, this year's entry, "Love Letter," is all about love.
He outlines his plan in "Lost in Your Love," declaring, "I wanna bring the love songs back to the radio" over a gorgeously simple soul backdrop and a "Stop in the Name of Love" beat.
It's part of a decades-long tour of soul ballads that Kelly uses on "Love Letter," starting with the '50s-styled "When a Woman Loves," which sounds like it could have been done by The Platters, even including a dramatic, ready-for-American Idol blowout ending. On "Love Is," Kelly and newcomer K. Michelle vamp like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in the '60s, playing innocent and passionate simultaneously right down to the harmonies and the "darlin's."
"Not Feelin' the Love" feels like a Michael Jackson ballad from the '70s, especially in the "Off the Wall"-era ad-libs at the end. (Kelly also pays tribute to Jackson with a version of "You Are Not Alone," which appears as a secret track.)
He does spend some time in the present, with the Ne-Yo-esque title track, which also is unusually sleek, both musically and lyrically for the usually more ornate Kelly. It's a treat to hear Kelly put all his personal eccentricities and quirks aside to offer up a pure, mainstream album like "Love Letter."
Of course, that may be because we all know this well-behaved, well-adjusted act probably won't last long.
-- GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday