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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

DIG!!! LAZARUS DIG!!!

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

If Nick Cave were a baseball player, he wouldn't be able to escape steroid allegations. How else would you explain a late-career surge that finds the 50-year-old Australian provocateur making the most vital music of his career?

"Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!," officially Cave's 14th album with longtime backing band the Bad Seeds, is nothing short of a powerhouse. Its 11 songs provide a stunning showcase of lyrical and musical might and precision that any band of young whippersnappers could only hope to approach.

This is high-class rock-and-roll made by musicians who relish getting dirty. The album feels like an extension of Grinderman, last year's side project in which Cave and fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos indulged their lascivious garage rock urges. "Lazarus" is less raw, but lurching organ and scratchy guitar are still the norm, while startling blasts of distortion cut through many songs. Even the tender ballads are downright spooky, thanks to Ellis's work on viola, electric mandolin and flute.

But, as always, the focus is on Cave's lyrics. Like a modern-day Marquis de Sade, Cave explores the dark corners of all things spiritual and sexual with elegance and biting wit, his rumbling growl never sounding better.

The title track re-imagines Lazarus (now Larry) as a hapless, 21st-century resurrectee who suffers through homelessness, imprisonment and insanity before finally returning to the grave. "Ah, poor Larry," Cave offers in one of his few understated moments.

Album closer "More News From Nowhere" is one of Cave's best lyrical showcases to date, a hazy, rambling tale whose protagonist meets many offbeat characters. "Here comes Alina with two black eyes, she's given herself a transfusion/She's filled herself with panda blood to avoid all the confusion," he sings. It's one of those lines that would be cringe-worthy coming out of the mouth of a lesser artist, but Cave pulls it off with his usual aplomb.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE:"More News From Nowhere," "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!," "Albert Goes West"

TROUBLE IN MIND

Hayes Carll

Had 32-year-old Hayes Carll been old enough to emerge in the 1980s, his Houston drawl and lyrics about women of all dispositions would have fit nicely between the cracks Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Townes Van Zandt left behind. His third album's first line, from "Drunken Poet's Dream," is "I got a woman who's wild as Rome/she likes to be naked and gazed upon." It tells pretty much everything you need to know about "Trouble in Mind" -- Carll's characters are rebellious and sexy, and he illustrates them with the sound of deep, loping guitars, prissy mandolins and the occasional Rolling Stones riff.

The album sounds great in that swampy, Texas-country kind of way: The electric guitars seem primed to wrestle an alligator on slower songs like "I Got a Gig"; they crank up to house-party levels on "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" and "Faulkner Street." But the music is familiar, functioning mainly to complement Carll's husky voice and rich rhymes.

Carll's gift is for lyrical detail -- which producer Brad Jones is savvy enough to spotlight by conspicuously reducing the cacophony for the best lines. The girl in "Girl Downtown" has freckles, pencils in her pocket and ketchup on her clothes. The girl in "Wild as a Turkey" is "an angel in a place you don't belong." The girl in "She Left Me for Jesus" loves her savior literally: "She says that he's perfect/How could I compare?" Of course, by the end, Carll is threatening to beat up the Lord. It's a great touch in an album full of them.

-- Steve Knopper

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Drunken Poet's Dream," "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart," "She Left Me for Jesus"

ALL I FEEL

Ray J

Poor Ray J. For as long as he's been in the public eye, the 27-year-old R&B singer has suffered from a bad case of being known as Brandy's good-looking little brother. But his new album is an astonishingly solid achievement from someone who was largely written off as a frivolous boy toy.

The CD addresses his notorious porno tape with reality TV star Kim Kardashian and other evidently self-generated scandals. "The critics say I'm out acting a fool," he warbles on his intro song "Don't Wanna Be Right." "I'm tired of being accused of putting out these sex tapes, I'm just living my life." Part of why this album succeeds where his others have failed is that Ray J finally understands what the public thinks about him. And rather than fight it, he embraces his sleazy Lothario image and pushes the boundaries with graphic lyrics and unmoored sexuality.

On "Boyfriend," Ray J plays the role of the other man, but surprisingly advises his lover's husband. "She says she needs you/She'll never leave you," he croons in his high-pitched voice over feathery high-hats and measured kick drums. "Just pull her hair sometime." This pretty much sums up Ray J's whole charm.

Packed with good songwriting, trendy crunk and R&B-inspired tracks, and a healthy ability to laugh at himself, "All I Feel" makes you wonder whatever happened to Ray J's sister?

-- Serena Kim

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Girl From the Bronx," "Boyfriend," "Sexy Can I"

SPIRIT

Leona Lewis

"American Idol" may not be the starmaking behemoth it once was, but its U.K. counterpart, "X Factor," has been minting pop stars by the fistful. The show's third season winner, 23-year-old Leona Lewis, is the first to make a dent in Stateside hearts and wallets, thanks in no small part to the energetic backing of Oprah Winfrey, Simon Cowell and Clive Davis, the closest pop culture has gotten to a holy trinity.

Plainly intended to have a global reach, her debut disc has been programmed to float just as easily out of car windows in Beirut as in Islington. It's a focus-grouped, safer-than-safe effort scrubbed clean of idiosyncrasy, sexuality, irony, stray Britishisms and just about anything that might offend, interest or titillate.

"Spirit" loves love, in all its manifest varieties. There are jubilant and hand-clappy songs about love ("Forgive Me"), slow songs about love ("I Will Be"), songs about love you've heard before (a cover of the Roberta Flack classic "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face") and songs about love you only think you've heard before ("Whatever It Takes").

It's all drippy enough to make Celine Dion seem like Kimya Dawson, but this is only partly Lewis's fault. She has a voice both magnificent and uninteresting, one she wields with comparative restraint. "Spirit" seems inspired by bluesy '80s divas like Anita Baker and, more specifically, "Vision of Love"-era Mariah Carey, before Carey discovered hip-hop, divorce and the outermost edges of her register.

"Spirit" feels like an artifact in both sound (all those power ballads) and, less forgivably, in theme: There are so many "can't live without you, boy" songs, even Phyllis Schlafly would weep.

-- Allison Stewart

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Bleeding Love," "Take a Bow"

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