Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

Seven years ago, country singer and multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs rededicated himself to string band music with the release of "Bluegrass Rules." His septet's new CD proves that his faith in the music -- and its audience -- hasn't wavered.

Forget the title: It's mostly some old things that make "Brand New Strings" worth hearing, including the opening and closing tributes to bluegrass founder Bill Monroe. Skaggs, a multiple Grammy winner, first salutes his mentor with "Sally Jo," a staple in Monroe's repertoire. With help from some guests, the tune has been transformed into a stirring showcase for Skaggs's mournful tenor and Kentucky Thunder's crackling weave of fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitars. For the album's coda, Skaggs offers "Monroe Dancin', " a self-penned, reel-flavored instrumental; it's old-fashioned, unvarnished fun, as country as a hayride.

Several other tunes evoke vintage string-band traditions, with Skaggs displaying customary finesse on mandolin and guitar. Guy Clark and Shawn Camp's "Sis' Draper," a fictional account of a ferocious fiddler, could easily set a barn dance into swirling motion. The mood turns soulful when Skaggs revisits his previously recorded coal-country ballad "My Father's Son," which calls to mind Merle Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon," and when he performs the Lester Flatt-inspired spiritual ballad "Why Did I Wait So Long?" As for the album's title track, it provides the band (and electric guitarist Johnny Hyland) with a clever excuse to tear things up.

Skaggs's affection for sentimental ballads gets the best of him at times. Both "Spread a Little Love Around" and "Love Does It Every Time" are bland and forgettable. Yet his exceptionally tight band -- and several guests, including fiddler Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton -- more than make up for the lulls.

-- Mike Joyce


The Delgados

Scotland's Delgados have perfected the art of dynamic darkness, producing the kind of music one might describe as soaring were it not so typically dour and glum. The group's last album was called "Hate," and not even the sweet and sour interplay of vocalists Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward could perk up the particularly downbeat lyrical outlook.

"Universal Audio," the band's fifth album, is hardly the stuff of Top 40 fantasy, but the band sounds brighter all the same. Pollock's voice is its usual blissful, beautiful self, but Woodward seems to have taken a few lessons in enunciation; his resigned mumble has been replaced by more forceful declarations, raising songs such as "Is This All That I Came For?" to the level of anthem. In another big shift, the band ditched its lush orchestration. And while the stark lack of strings and woodwinds might not seem the formula for a pick-me-up, that sacrifice has sparked the band's most focused and direct pop record in years. Ironically, the change takes some getting used to: Songs like "Everybody Come Down," "Get Action!" and the deceptively spare "Sink or Swim" seem pretty straightforward on first listen, their intricacies -- and yes, more than a hint of persistent darkness -- hidden beneath the gorgeous melodies and big hooks. But the Delgados rarely let the listener off easily, and the mysterious, anxious feeling that lingers once the music stops is the same thing that sends you back to the record again and again.

-- Joshua Klein