Beck -- Guero (Interscope): You'd think Beck co-producing an album with the Dust Brothers again would be a good thing. They are, after all, the production team he worked with on Odelay in 1996. So why does Guero sound so glum? Could it be because Beck made Odelay to get out from under the oppressive shadow of 'Loser,' only to find himself under a more oppressive shadow? The deliberate musical steps in other directions in the years since then suggest there could be something to that theory, and that returning to Odelayville is akin to Homer Simpson returning to the nuclear power plant when Marge is pregnant with Maggie -- he's resigning himself to the inevitable.
This is just a theory, and it isn't obvious on a track-to-track basis. Listening to each song individually is rewarding, and the inventive beats, grooves and samples jump out. Listened to as an album, though, it just isn't much fun. Guero's stuck in mid-tempo, and his singing and rapping sound tired. It would be nice if that was an artistic decision, but it sounds more like he's weary of being Beck.
Shelby Lynne -- Suit Yourself (Capitol): Shelby Lynne has charted a wobbly musical path since the smoky country soul of 2000's I Am Shelby Lynne. The acclaim that accompanied the album was such that you could hear the sound of a label throwing money at her on the follow up, Love, Shelby. Glossier with songs co-written by Glen Ballard, the album seemed calculated in every way and far less interesting for it. After that, Identity Crisis in 2003 is aptly named, recording with X among others and making songs so intimate that listening to them feels impolite.
Suit Yourself has some of the last album's intimacy, with fragments of studio conversation adding texture to tracks. It is also a return to Nashville-by-way-of-Memphis soul, particularly on the beautiful 'I Cry Everyday' and 'I Won't Die Alone.' There's a casual quality to the recordings typical of sometime-collaborator Tony Joe White, whose 'Rainy Night in Georgia' is Lynne's untitled 12th track. That offhanded feel on a tight, 45-minute-long album makes the album seem like a complete, successful musical statement, capped by the lovely 'Johnny Met June' -- a song written the day Johnny Cash died.
Marie Gauthier -- Mercy Now (Lost Highway): Thibodaux native Marie Gauthier's debut on Lost Highway Records treads Lucinda Williams' musical territory -- the intersection of folk and country -- but Gauthier's path to this point makes Williams' path seem like a walk down Primrose Lane to Sunday school. Gauthier's history of substance abuse has been the subtext for many of her songs, and she says she didn't write a song until she was 35 because she couldn't write drunk or high.
As you might expect, the CD isn't a dance party on the beach, but it isn't as harrowing as it could be, either. There are no excuses and no happy-ever-afters, but on the title cut, the French Quarter travelogue 'Wheel Inside the Wheel' and Harlan Howard's 'Just Say She's a Rhymer,' Gauthier sounds like someone who has decided understanding is the only answer, so she's trying to be as clear-eyed and compassionate as possible.
Los Super Seven -- Heard It on the X (Telarc): This project started as a supergroup with members of Los Lobos, Freddy Fender and Rick Trevino among others. 2001's Canto expanded the Texas music-centered project to pan-Latin proportions, but the new CD returns it to its initial scope. David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas have left, and exactly who has replaced them -- or even whom the super seven are -- is unclear. Raul Malo sings two songs, and Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico are on a number of tracks. Then again, only Charlie Sexton accompanies Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown on a cover of 'See That My Grave is Kept Clean.'
The project may have drifted, but as a musical tribute to Texas, it's a lot of fun, covering songs by Doug Sahm, Bobby Fuller, Bob Wills and on the title cut, ZZ Top. The album sounds startlingly coherent considering the shifting lineup, and singers like Delbert McClinton, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and Rodney Crowell all get in the spirit. Still, a more distinctive musical signature would make this more than a very pleasant diversion.
Nikki Sudden & the Last Bandits -- Treasure Island (Secretly Canadian): Punk-era survivor Nikki Sudden has made a career recording songs heavily influenced by the New York Dolls' Johnny Thunders, the Rolling Stones, T. Rex and Fairport Convention. Whether on his own or with Dave Kusworth in the Jacobites, Sudden is a romantic in rags singing forlorn love songs from European shadows to women out of his class.
Indie label Secretly Canadian did the world a service getting his solo and Jacobites records back into print, but Treasure Island is the first new album he's made for them, and it's heads and tails above the last few albums he scrabbled together. With former Stone Mick Taylor on two, and Ian McLagen from the Faces playing piano on six, tracks like 'Looking for a Friend' and 'Wooden Floor' hit rockin' R&B grooves familiar to fans of either band. British pedal steel player B.J. Cole -- who played with Marc Bolan and John Cale as well as Bjork and Spiritualized -- adds a country touch to many of the ballads, most effectively on the story-song, 'Russian River.'
Sudden never seems to work too hard on making compositions distinctive, letting his persona and guitar do the heavy lifting. Here, for the first time in a few years, that's enough.
Sloan -- A Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 (Koch): Sloan is big in its native Canada, and in a perfect world, it would be at least as big here in the United States. Last summer, Sloan opened for Jet at the House of Blues and showed itself every bit the rock band Jet is, and better songwriters. As this singles collection demonstrates, Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott are almost compulsively clever writers, and perhaps the fact that they don't hide their intelligence is a problem. The first single, 'Underwhelmed,' opens, 'She was underwhelmed if that's a word / I know it's not 'cause I looked it up / That's one of the skills I learned in my school.'
Musically, there's a similar cheekiness, as if the members ripped pages out of a sheet music book of '70s hits, shuffled them, assembled the parts and figured out how to smooth out the rough spots. As a result, there are echoes of the Beatles and their inheritors, as well as glam and hard rock, but the pastiche is so sweeping and so gleeful and deliberate that the compositions sound post-modern instead of derivative.
Various Artists -- Friends and Lovers: Songs of Bread (Badman): In the liner notes to this tribute record of songs by David Gates and Bread, producers Eric Shea and Dylan Magierek defend the band as more than just a guilty pleasure, and the publicist hyping the CD points me toward an article extolling the virtues of soft rock. Soft rock and Bread -- eh, you feel it or you don't, but it's hard to argue that Gates didn't write some attractive melodies. The weakness of the album isn't the source material; it's that none of the artists -- Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow and Cake included -- do anything with the songs besides play them prettily. They play them straight, which would be fun as a part of any of their shows, but if you're nostalgic for Bread, you're better off with a greatest hits package. If you're not, this won't make you like them better.