THE GO! TEAM "Proof of Youth" (SubPop, 3 stars)
The band from Brighton, England, follows up the low-fi sample-savvy wizardry of 2005's "Thunder, Lightning, Strike" with another infectiously upbeat conflagration that marries marching-band mayhem to a frenetically paced old-school rap aesthetic. The six-person collective fronted by chief cheerleader Ninja and masterminded by pop culture obsessive Ian Parton makes music that sounds like it's coming out of an AM transistor radio. The Go! Team manages the unconventional trick of making a bass-less party record, even when it brings Public Enemy's Chuck D into the fray for a formidable cameo on "Flashlight Fight." Just as much fun the second time around.
CHAMILLIONAIRE "Ultimate Victory" (Universal, 2 ½ stars)
If you're a rapper whose name isn't Kanye West or 50 Cent, you're better off not releasing an album this month. But Chamillionaire has defied heavy odds before. After the storm of exposure that swept through his hometown of Houston in 2005 - introducing the world to Mike Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall and casting a favorable light on veterans such as Scarface and UGK - Chamillionaire sneaked out his debut, "The Sound of Revenge," late in the year. The album might have gone overlooked were it not for the omnipresent single "Ridin'," a tale of racial profiling that picked up a Grammy back in February.
"Ultimate Victory" doesn't stray from the formula of "Ridin'" - too many of the songs fall back on the same bouncy cadence and rhythmic stutter. Chamillionaire has a patient, almost strategic flow, as if he's waiting to see what kinds of twists and fake-outs a beat has up its sleeve before making a move of his own. He's also profanity-free (even the curse words of his guests - Slick Rick, Devin the Dude and Lil Wayne among them - are muted). Such higher roads, however, don't always offer better alternatives; in "Industry Groupie," a perfectly good Europe sample - "The Final Countdown" - is wasted on the warnings of stripper-dating.
But beyond the empty talk of money, sex and fame are several nods to Chamillionaire's art form of choice. These include the lead single "Hip Hop Police," which name-drops, among others, Wu-Tang and Death Row, artifacts of an era gone but clearly not forgotten. Let the other guys concern themselves with ruling rap. Chamillionaire's content to merely celebrate it.
AKRON/FAMILY "Love Is Simple" (Young God, 3 stars)
Animal Collective is not the only band exploring drum circle chants, abstract jams mixed with focused melodies, and willful weirdness. But instead of AC's exuberance (as found on the new "Strawberry Jam"), Brooklyn's Akron/Family favors a darkly pensive, Southern Gothic style of exploration on "Love Is Simple."
Traveling from eight-minute Crazy Horse-like epics ("There's So Many Colors") to quiet piano-based ballads ("Crickets") to woozy psychedelic blues ("Phenomena") to something approximating a drunken brass band ("Of All the Things") and often stopping for gang vocals that are part gospel, part chant, part childlike sing-along, "Love Is Simple" is anything but. Akron/Family, which backs Swans' Michael Gira on "We Are Him," his recent Angels of Light album, relishes abrupt and surprising juxtapositions more than coherent song structures, and Love is an unsettling but many-splendored thing.
JAMES BLUNT "All the Lost Souls" (Custard/Atlantic, 2 ½ stars)
For anyone who's beautiful and knows it's true despite the bother of a guy with a high voice repeatedly singing so, this second Blunt album is yours.
Like the attraction of a new automobile's smell, "Lost Souls" has all the hallmarks of a sophomore effort: bigger and shinier but the clutch still sticks exactly like it did on the last car.
Our generation's one-man Bee Gees maintains the earnest, focused emotionalism and laconically lilting vocals of his debut. There are flickering acoustic guitars ("Same Mistake") and heavy-hearted melodies. The open adenoidal flutter of his voice and the tender mercy of his lyrics affect the mortally wounding "I'll Take Everything" and the playful nostalgia of "1973." Blunt wishes for sobriety on the latter so as to see more clearly through the rain - that's too much clarity. Cliches start popping up like dandelions. But there are enough kicky pianos, chirpy harmonies, dancing guitars and keen `70s Brit-pop references ("Give Me Some Love") to make this middle-of-the-roadster drive harder and faster.
SARAH JOHNS "Big Love in a Small Town" (BNA, 3 ½ stars)
As musical kiss-offs go, it's a memorable one. On "The One in the Middle," the first single from this boldly vibrant debut, Johns shows her disdain for her ex with a raised digit - and it's not her ring finger.
It's a rocking slice of country twang, full of take-no-guff attitude, and so is much of the rest of Big Love in a Small Town. The Kentucky native cowrote all the songs, and her influences obviously run to Dolly and Loretta, not Faith or Shania, though the set is not lacking in commercial sparkle.
Johns can be pretty tough - "If you could hold your woman like you hold your whiskey, I'd still be in your arms." But she can also laugh at herself ("He Hates Me"), and the ballads "Baby My Heart" and "Touch Me" show a tender side that reveals touching insecurities. It all adds up to an honest, flesh-and-blood portrait of a real woman, and a very entertaining one.
LUKE BRYAN "I'll Stay Me" (Capitol, 2 ½ stars)
Luke Bryan is a "Country Man," and he drills that point home long before he gets to the song of that title, track No. 8 out of 11. The Georgia native's debut is all about extolling the virtues of the rural life and the salt-of-the-earth folks who live it. That includes himself, and he's not about to change - hence the title song.
Bryan, who cowrote everything, lays it on pretty thick - a little too thick. But he keeps the music country, and he never comes across as obnoxiously superior. It helps that he also displays an occasional humorous touch amid the earnestness. "All My Friends Say" is a rowdy barroom sing-along, and even the honky-tonking "Country Man" hints that he doesn't take himself too seriously: "Your little iPod is loaded down with Hoobastank/Don't be a tape-player-hater, girl, we're groovin' to Hank."
MCCOY TYNER/JOE LOVANO/CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE/JEFF "TAIN" WATTS "McCoy Tyner Quartet" (McCoy Tyner Music/Half Note, 3 ½ stars)
McCoy Tyner gets his own imprint on the Half Note Label, and the kickoff recording, captured live at Yoshi's in Oakland, Calif., and on National Public Radio in the waning days of 2006, comes with some celebrated compadres: tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Christian McBride and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums.
The lineup achieves a serious level of verve. Tyner, who made his career with a fellow Philadelphian, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and has become even stronger in the intervening years, creates a Coltrane-like sound on the mystical opening track, "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit."
This is a player's set. Lovano's burly tone proves to be a great complement to the leader's granite chords, whether he's sounding elevated or igniting little flames all over the place. McBride shows wide range in his solos, going skyward in logical leaps and then returning to anchor the groove.
Tyner's seven originals, which make up the session, often come with a slinky, danceable quality and a vamp-heavy, meditative aura. "Sama Lucaya" starts like that before its impressive climax, while "Search for Peace" curiously blends the soulful and the spiritual.
SKIP WILKINS QUINTET "Volume II" (Media, 3 stars)
Pianist Skip Wilkins continues his easy-to-take ways on this follow-up to last year's more up-tempo Volume I.
Wilkins, who teaches at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., doesn't wax professorial on this set of nine originals. The session sounds like West Coast cool but with updated, East Coast suavity.
The quintet - tenor saxophonist Paul Kendall, guitarist Paul Kozic, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Gary Rissmiller - regularly creates a likable languor.
The tunes evolve - the fast-moving "Needs Some Ice" hits a soulful interlude courtesy of Kendall's guitar, while "Quiet, Please," written for a local politician whom Wilkins found irritating, comes off as chamomile mellow. Neat trick if you can do it.
"Fortuitous Fifteen" is more angular and boppish yet still melodic, while "Hold Me" is all liquid ballad.
"Strauss' Four Last Songs and Excerpts From Salome and Capriccio" Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Antonio Pappano conducting (EMI, 3 stars)
"Verdi's Aida" With Stemme, Luciana D'Intino, Salvatore Licitra, Juan Pons and Matti Salminen. Zurich Opera Orchestra, Adam Fisher conducting (Bel Air DVD, 3 stars)
"Janacek's Jenufa" With Stemme, Eva Marton, Jorma Silvasti and Par Lindskog. Orquestra Sinfonica and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Peter Schneider conducting (TDK, DVD, 3 stars)
For those who haven't seen the much-discussed Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, the great praise for her somewhat reserved "Tristan und Isolde" recording could seem puzzling indeed. On these new releases, you realize the visual element is, with her, crucial. Though a true-blue soprano, she has the sound and production of a mezzo. High notes are securely there, but that's not the part of her voice that blooms or carries much emotional truth. You really need to see her to understand how vocal intelligence resides in her rich chest voice, vivid articulation of the language and expressive use of Wagnerian amplitude.
That last quality gives her "Four Last Songs" monumentality on the good-to-excellent Strauss disc, and on the DVDs, her "Jenufa" gains emotional poise, while "Aida's" love-vs.-duty dilemma is especially wrenching. Stock operatic moments inspire from her misguided silent-movie acting; she's best when dealing with more abstract matters, like transcendence.
Stemme aside, "Jenufa" arrives in the much-traveled Olivier Tambosi production that represents Czech village culture with clean, tidy spaces in lieu of atmosphere. The singing is more effective than ingratiating, particularly Marton's rhetorically compelling but vocally ruinous Kostelnicka.
"Aida" is served up by Nicolas Joel in the time and place of the opera's premiere - Victorian-era Cairo - with a handsomeness that, appropriate or not, is a nice break from kitschy Egyptian drag. The cast has few answered prayers. As Radames, Licitra's tenor is alarmingly puny and unstable, while Pons (Amonasro) and Salminen (Ramfis) are showing their vocal age. The great exception is D'Intino's Amneris. She looks like a black widow in her dark, high-bustle costume, but sings with the kind of grand, lustrous mezzo that Verdi lovers have been waiting for.
-David Patrick Stearns