SOMETHING FOR THE PAIN Redlight King (Hollywood)
The cover shows a spike grasped by a tattooed fist. The disc's title is taken from the lights that start a drag race, suggesting that this is going to be speed metal, or hard-core, maybe.
In fact, "Something For the Pain" is much more nuanced and varied. Yes, there are walls of guitars, and emotion-laden lyrics, hard rhythms. But there also are acoustic-based songs, others with hip-hop style vocals by the band's singer-songwriter Kaz, and plenty of melody to soften the edges.
And then, to take this disc to a whole other level, there's the debut single, a brilliant mash-up of samples from Neil Young's "Old Man" with a tougher arrangement and rap vocals that pay homage to Kaz's father who "When he ruled with his fist/It kept us all out of trouble."
It would be asking too much for the rest of this rather brief (11 tracks, about 37 minutes) disc to reach that standard -- but most of it comes close, which makes it seriously good. You can hear the quality in the fabulous chorus of the opening, title track. The guitars grind, the rhythm section locks in, and Kaz's vocals -- expressive and with good range -- ride over the top.
Musically, the blend of rock with sung and hip-hop vocals works a treat. On "Drivin To Kalifornia" rap vocals on the verse of the low-key song mesh with lovely harmony lines on the chorus; stadium rock and a go-for-broke chorus on "Underground" contrast with the acoustic-based closer "When The Dust Settles Down," a rapped confessional and statement of hope because "I came through the storm/Stopped diggin' in the dirt," all wrapped by a mellow chorus.
At a time when so much music is prefab, packaged, primped, and posturing, here's a disc that helps to renew one's faith.
-- RICHARD PATON
TOO HICK FOR THE ROOM Cow Bop (B4Man Music)
This is one of those rare times when it's impossible to hang a label on a band or pigeonhole its type of music. Thanks to the incredible talents of four guys and a gal that make up Cow Bop, the result is the jazziest country sound since Bob Wills. Taking it one step further, there is a gutsy irreverence that makes straying from the original tunes an exciting adventure in every groove.
Western swing, bebop, and flat-out jazz are tossed together with a sassy delivery, breakneck instrumental work, and often sultry vocals that conjure images of big-band days. The 12 tunes are standards that have been worked over by better-known artists through the years, but never have they been wrung out so completely and so freshly.
Bruce Forman leads the way, showing why he is widely known for his prowess as a jazz and bebop guitarist. Pinto Pammy sizzles as she sings, and Phil Salazar's fiddle adds a special kind of heat. Alex King on bass and Jake Reed on drums punctuate the tightness of the quintet.
"San Antonio Rose" opens the 54-minute package much like it has sounded for many years, and then in a few bars evolves into a spicy, jazzy opus. There are several album highlights, including a saucy rendition of "It's a Sin To Tell a Lie" and a raucous take on "Alabamy Bound." Spectacular guitar and fiddle playing make "Chinatown" worth revisiting.
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
HERE I AM Kelly Rowland (Universal Republic)
Kelly Rowland, the former Destiny's Child runner-up, has approached the problem of her solo career from any number of directions. She's tried various types of music, collaborated far and wide. This year she'll be one of the post-Simon Cowell replacement judges on The X Factor in England. Most recently she's become a dance diva, having some of her biggest international success working with the French dance producer David Guetta on "When Love Takes Over."
Dance music is a great place to hide in plain sight, a world where Rowland's presence matters more than her voice, which is sometimes strong but without texture.
Given her recent success and the recent dance-music infestation of the pop and R&B charts, no one would have blamed Rowland for going in that direction on "Here I Am," her third solo album, and first in four years -- it would have been a craven move but an understandable one.
But "Here I Am" is something much more confident and more surprising. It's a chewy and moody R&B album on which Rowland sounds assured and vital. Or at minimum, is made to sound that way.
That's because she still doesn't do much of the heavy lifting here. Her vocals are stacked thick and placed loud in the mix, but while they're noticeable, they're not particularly notable apart from their arrangements.
These songs are dense and sinewy, and largely move at a furious pace. The exception is "Motivation," this album's single, on which Rowland is appealingly slippery.
Mostly, though, she's pushed into shouty singing on "I'm Dat Chick" and "Feelin Me Right Now," which feel like boxing-ring-tough assertions of dominance.
-- JON CARAMANICA, New York Times