Lucinda Williams -- Live From Austin, TX. (New West): This is a recent entry in New West Records' series of CDs and DVDs that present entire Austin City Limits tapings -- sessions that were edited into the show that aired. This DVD of Williams was filmed in 1998 after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was released, and it captures Lucinda as she often was live at that time -- really good, but not special. The performance is far less stylized than the one heard on her recent Live @ the Fillmore, though a hard-rocking version of "Changed the Locks" points the direction the song would go.
Through most of the Car Wheels material, the camera finds her looking straight ahead with a slightly vacant stare. The performances are fine, the vocals committed, but she doesn't look comfortable, nor does she look connected to the songs. As the set progresses, her face registers intensity and feeling, but once you pass the simple pleasure of hearing those songs played well, you're left to contemplate what is going on behind her pale blue eyes.
Richard Thompson -- Live From Austin, TX. (New West): This generous 90-minute performance is released as both a CD and DVD, and it features the British guitar virtuoso playing with Danny Thompson on upright bass and Michael Jerome on drums in his pre-Pleasure Club days. The trio allows for much of the intimacy of Thompson's solo, acoustic performances, but the small band allows his pop songs to breathe and, more importantly, it allows him the ability to play electric guitar. That's a treat because he has a distinctive, brittle guitar sound, and his soloing often says what his singing voice can't.
These recordings do more than document a cool moment; in this case, the songs are arranged for the lineup. They aren't Dylanesque reinventions, but these versions make the more pop "Bathsheba Smiles" sound of a piece with the "Rumble"-like "Shoot Out the Lights" and the folk "'52 Black Vincent." The latter song, in fact, has never been more heartbreaking than on this version, while "Shoot Out the Lights" shows off his guitar prowess. It's not the showpiece he recorded on the studio version, but when he breaks a high E string during his second solo, he works around it so effectively that you don't realize a string has broken until the camera catches it hanging as the solo approaches its conclusion. It might not be Thompson at his finest, but it's damned close.
Mark Knopfler -- One Take Radio Sessions (Warner Bros.): Interesting, that the former Dire Straits guitar player trumpets these songs as being one-take versions. I suppose that's supposed to suggest there's a chance that something might go wrong or that something wonderful may spontaneously happen. If only all those Dire Straits records hadn't suggested neither is likely.
Knopfler fans will be satisfied, anyway.
The Morells -- Think About It, Brian Capps -- Walk Through Walls, The Bel Airs -- Got Love, The Domino Kings -- Some Kind of Sign (all on Hightone): The Morells are Springfield, Mo.'s answer to Rockpile with Lou Whitney serving as the resident Nick Lowe. Whitney produces all these four albums by Springfield bands, and all feature beer-drinking music -- rock, R&B and rockabilly -- performed by guys who love bars and the music equally. The downside of the four coming out together to coincide with a tour by the bands is that the similarities in sound and aesthetics are so pronounced that it's hard to hear the differences. The quick take: Domino Kings is the most fun, Capps has the best originals and the Morells is the weakest, settling for jokey songs too often.
Hot Club of San Francisco -- Postcard From Gypsyland (Lost Wax): I'm sure there's a Hot Club of Des Moines, too. Here a Hot Club, there a Hot Club, everywhere a Hot Club playing string-based jazz and paying tribute to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in greater or lesser degrees. Here's more, though this Hot Club adds a Latin element that almost compensates for the curious lack of swing.
Frank Black -- Honeycomb (Back Porch): Frank Black of the Pixies backed by Southern R&B session guys Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham and David Hood among others sounds like a really interesting idea, and it is a really interesting idea. Sadly, it's not a lot more than that. Maybe you have to care more about Frank Black than I do and have some investment in his musical adventures, or maybe he needs some songs as good as Doug Sahm's "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day," which he covers. Or maybe he just needs to be a little less laidback and respectful; ratcheting shit up worked pretty well for him in his last band.
Fat Joe -- All Or Nothing (Atlantic): His homie/gangsta image takes a hard hit when he does a duet and video with Jennifer Lopez, and the army of guest stars and guest producers means if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of record-industry money being spent. Still, this is the 2005 model for pop rap, and it's silly to deny "Get it Poppin'," "So It Goes" and the remix of "Lean Back." But like pop-rap albums from days of yore, I doubt I'll listen to any other songs on the CD again.
Will Smith -- Switch (Interscope): Even by Will Smith standards, the title cut/movie tie-in is pretty lightweight. I suppose he's showing depth in "Mr. Nice Guy," analyzing his image and warning people not to mistake nice for soft, but the beat is pedestrian and you can still hear too much Fresh Prince in his flow to take him seriously.