FORCE OF NATURE

Mountain Heart

Tales of divorce, death, murder and tornado-whipped devastation, along with saintly portraits of motherhood and gospel-tinged prayers -- Mountain Heart sings the kind of songs any bluegrass traditionalist can embrace. Yet the band's appeal doesn't end there.

"Force of Nature," the sextet's fourth CD, won't surprise anyone familiar with the group's evolution. Three band members -- guitarist Steve Gulley, banjoist Barry Abernathy and fiddler Jim Van Cleve -- previously performed with the exemplary bluegrass ensemble Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, while mandolinist Adam Steffey is best known for his stint with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Rounding out the group and adding to its crisp, driven sound are guitarist Clay Jones and bassist Jason Moore. Both obviously share their band mates' passion for hardscrabble vignettes, Flatt and Scruggs-inspired instrumentals and the occasional contemporary ballad.

Though dubbed a "supergroup" shortly after forming in the late '90s, Mountain Heart doesn't indulge in lengthy solos at the expense of songcraft. Perhaps that's because the band has three vocalists who can sing lead. Gulley's soulful tenor is put to particularly good use on "Soldier's Prayer," though even when the tempo shifts into overdrive on "Heart Like a Roadsign," he sounds like he could give Vince Gill a real run for his money. "Twister," on the other hand, seems perfectly tailored to Steffey's lower register and resigned tone, especially when he takes inventory of a tornado's toll: "Through the boards on the cellar door I watch my life go by, 30 years of sweat and soil dancing through the sky."

There's no shortage of string-band virtuosity on display here, much of it sparked by Van Cleve's fiddling, along with some stirring harmonies. But time and again, Mountain Heart's soulfulness trumps its showmanship.

-- Mike Joyce

4TH DIMENSIONAL

ROCKETSHIPS GOING UP

The Gift of Gab

The underground hip-hop scene haunted by the Gift of Gab has forged a fitful bond with its consciousness. As it stresses politics and purity over the violence and, well, vitality of the chart-topping rap it eyes as a movement-killing foe, indie hip-hop often devolves into parochial identity crises and stiff old-school tributes. As leader of the group Blackalicious, the Gift of Gab has occasionally fallen prey to good intentions, but his first solo album wiggles free by treating hip-hop less like an endangered institution and more as a reason to bump beats, sling rhymes and effectively flee this world for one more full of promise, progress and potency.

Scaling down the swollen ambition of Blackalicious's 2002 album "Blazing Arrow," the Gift of Gab paints a wondrously spacious picture of his worldview on "4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up." On "Stardust," he raps about "dipping your third eye into a tab of liquid acid for some psychedelic clarity to breathe within the madness." All electric-piano pads and sashaying beats, the album's production is highly melodic and markedly minimal in a way that emphasizes the Gift of Gab's dizzy, singsong flow. On "Rat Race," he sketches a conscious-rap manifesto over a screwball mix of electronic winks and a billowing tuba line, while "Way of the Light" trails clear-headed contemplation over a haunting figure played on what sounds like African thumb piano.

It all makes for a heady, word-rich feast of hip-hop at its most wholesome and heedful.

-- Andy Battaglia

PALM TREES AND POWER LINES

Sugarcult

Our long national emo nightmare finally seems to be over (we'll miss you, Jimmy Eat World) now that acts like Rooney, Yellowcard and, most recently, Sugarcult have replaced the determinedly depressed bands in audience affections. There's something almost curiously old-fashioned about this new breed of power pop (emphasis on power) mini-stars, with their retro appreciation for melody, hooks and Beach Boys-reminiscent harmonies. Like most of their peers, the Los Angeles-based Sugarcult takes a kitchen-sink approach to musicmaking, combining the new-wave stylings of Elvis Costello at his mildest, the So-Cal-has-a-dark-underbelly ruminations of Phantom Planet and a little bit of Warped tour-era pop-punk muscle.

Its sophomore album, "Palm Trees and Power Lines," is impossibly catchy and dexterously done, full of anthemic, melancholy songs so perfectly keyed to the end of the school year that they might as well have titles like "Post-Graduation Angst Song" and "My Depressing Prom." Thanks to its admixture of uniformly miserable lyrics and buzzing hooks, "Palm Trees" manages to be good-natured and incredibly depressing at the same time, an irresistible formula that's hard to mess up; even the dumber songs at least sound good.

Sugarcult is smart enough not to push the sunshine/darkness metaphors into Joan Didion territory: A few slightly draggy ballads excepted, the band has managed to create an album with a finely tuned sense of anxiety and dread that feels entirely separate from that of its emo forebears, proving that, for now at least, every unhappy band is unhappy in its own way.

-- Allison Stewart

Mountain Heart doesn't sacrifice its soulful renderings for showmanship on the bluegrass band's fourth CD, "Force of Nature."Blackalicious leader Gift of Gab slips hip-hop cliches on his solo "Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up."Sugarcult's "Palm Trees and Power Lines" floats along on catchy good hooks despite the album's depressing lyrics.