It's hard nit-picking over Streisand's collection 'Release Me'

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    Barbra Streisand (Columbia)

    The problem with reviewing albums like this, a collection of 11 previously unreleased songs from an American icon, is that Streisand's scrap heap is still a lot better than the best efforts of some A-list singers.

    This collection, which Streisand culled from a vault with songs going back to 1963, does show her with a few moments of fallibility and imperfection, but searching for her miscues is almost like an odd game of artistic voyeurism or, perhaps more simply, like finding things to nit-pick about an Olympic figture skater's graceful landing.

    At age 70 and with more than 60 albums -- 51 of them gold, 30 platinum and 13 multi-platinum -- Streisand is the No. 1 selling female recording artist of all time and the only woman to make the Top 10 all-time best-selling artists list.

    Of special note is her 1971 tender performance with pianist-composer Randy Newman on Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

    -- TOM HENRY


    Eliot Lewis (Self-released)

    As a keyboard player and guitarist for Hall & Oates and a key member of the Average White Band, Eliot Lewis has carved out a distinguished career as a sideman.

    But that doesn't mean he doesn't have something of his own to say.

    On his fourth solo album, Lewis plays all the instruments himself, crafting a thoroughly professional, breezy, windows-down, stereo-turned-up romp through pop, rock, soul, jazz, and blues styles. Blessed with a sweet voice and impeccable guitar tone (the disc could serve as an advertisement for the Michigan-based Reverend guitars, which he uses exclusively on "Enjoy The Ride"), Lewis cruises through 10 songs and plays all the instruments himself.

    As befits his skill at working with other artists, Lewis is a jack-of-all-trades musically, able to slip from the groove-heavy positive pop rock "Determination" to jazzier instrumental excursions and the Led Zeppelin meets the Average White Band rock funk of the road ode "Start to Finish."

    He will be road testing many of these songs Tuesday night at the Village Idiot in Maumee, 309 Conant St. The cover charge is $5 and he'll be playing from 6 to 9 p.m.



    Birds of Chicago (Self-released)

    New music like this doesn't come along often enough.

    JT Nero (the nom de guerre for Toledo native Jeremy Lindsay) and Allison Russell form a musical partnership that squeezes out sparks of creativity, beauty, and soulful grace over the course of 12 universally excellent songs. Sometimes it's breath-taking the way their voices blend ("The Wide Sea"), and other times it's just good fun (the bouncy opener "Trampoline), resulting in a disc that transcends labels and exists in its own time and space.

    Lindsay is based in Chicago and records solo as JT Nero and in band form with JT and the Clouds. Russell is a member of Po Girl, a Canadian folk/roots band. The two have been singing together since about 2006, including on the 2010 JT Nero disc, "Mountains/Forests."

    He wrote all but two of the songs and as a lyricist generally writes narratives with a strong literary bent, or abstract pieces that are more like paintings than songs. Nature themes abound among the images that spill out on "Birds of Chicago" -- seasons change and the weather shifts and there are porpoises and crows and vipers and pigeons and bees.

    "Old Calcutta" is a naturalist fever dream filled with strange ideas that float from light to heavy as Russell weaves magic on clarinet. "Galaxy Ballroom" -- featuring heart-breaking sublime vocals from Russell -- is a gentle country waltz about grieving gracefully. And the closer "The Wide Sea" has an almost U2-like bass line under a soaring vocal from both singers and wonderful piano accompaniment from Drew Lindsay, Jeremy's brother.

    Stylistically, the Birds careen from folk to soul to pop to country in a blend of intelligence and influences so immersed in originality that they are consumed by the music. It just sounds like Birds of Chicago, which is a very good thing.

    -- R.L.