Our reviewers give you the low-down on new and notable recordings

Charlie Robison Step Right Up

Columbia Nashville/Lucky Dog

Although Charlie Robison and his brother Bruce are frequently identified as husbands of famous wives (Dixie Chick Emily Robison and singer Kelly Willis, respectively), the two are among the most talented writers and performers in country music today. And while Bruce has gained notoriety for his songwriting, it's Charlie's rowdy stage presence that's really ignited fans. On his sophomore release for Sony, Robison offers up a generous helping of ass-kicking Texas country splashed with blues, rock, and genuine personality. Coproducer Blake Chancey adds some polish, but Robison and his band keep it down-home: no booming drums, no chorales-for-hire, no sugary emotions. Instead, Robison wraps himself up in the storytelling of Steve Earle, the honky-tonk energy of Jack Ingram, and a mischievous sense of humor uniquely his own. He sings tender ballads as confidently as he drawls sarcastic asides ("Well, he drove a Ford Fiesta / what the hell kinda car is that?"). He duets thrillingly with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines on the weepily pragmatic "The Wedding Song," and expertly resurrects NRBQ's "I Want You Bad." The telecasters sting, the mandolins strum, and the steel strings cry with the happy thought that country music's flame is still kicking up some blindingly bright sparks. --Eli Messinger

Mildred Bailey The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey MOSAIC

Some great singers fall through the cracks of history, others don't. Seminal recordings by Bing, Billie, Ella, Frank, and Sarah are readily available, but locating those by such other important warblers as Ethel Waters, Russ Columbo, Connee Boswell, and Al Hibbler probably would prove problematic. Mildred Bailey was one of the most popular performers of the 1930s (and an influence on singers as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett), but the bulk of her prolific output had been unavailable for decades until Mosaic compiled this ten-CD collection of her sides with the elegant little swing band of her husband, xylophone virtuoso Red Norvo, and less-formal sessions at which producer John Hammond surrounded her with such jazz heavies as Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Teddy Wilson, much as he had for Billie Holiday. One is reminded of how late the ugly minstrel tradition stretched into post-Jolson American pop as this Caucasian entertainer sings of darkies and pickaninnies on a few selections, yet Bailey informs the ballads and occasional blues with consummate swing in her elastic, distinctively girlish tones. Check www.mosaicrecords.com for ordering information. --Lee Hildebrand

Kristin Hersh Sunny Border Blue 4AD

The muse has returned, and she's as scorching as ever. This most recent effort from the former leader of the Throwing Muses offers an intimate view of disappointment, fear, anger, and innocence, among other things. This album isn't as completely stripped down as her previous recordings (nor a full-band sound like her last outing), but it's still somewhat minimalist. Lyrically it's as intense as ever, at times almost embarrassingly so. "How many times can you get fucked in how many different ways? You separate the good guys from disaster... " she says on "William's Cut." Though Hersh is known for her ability to cut to the bone, this album proves more pointed and naked than anything before it. "Listerine" broods, "it's hard and stupid; I'm the one who let you do it" as she laments the demise of the Throwing Muses, a bitter custody battle, and uncertain love. (The band, at least, will reunite at Slim's on May 26.) From the biting "Spain" to the deceptively spunky "Summer Salt," Hersh takes us on a roller coaster directly from her heart to our ears, completely ignoring the logic the brain may impose along the way. --Mo Herms

John Lewis Evolution II Atlantic

While the ambassadorial Satchmo was taking jazz to the world, tuxedo-clad John Lewis, an elegant and pointed pianist, broached the subject with academia and "serious music" purists. He helped harness the wild excitement of bebop with arrangements for the Dizzy Gillespie orchestras of the late '40s, and from the early '50s to the late '90s his tireless work with the Modern Jazz Quartet--bop's first "chamber group," known for its subtle dynamics--resulted in so many marvelous neoclassical compositions that his oeuvre could rival his hero Duke Ellington's for sweeping mood and accessible complexity. Now bassist Percy Heath is the last surviving member, as Lewis passed away last month, only weeks after releasing this excellent new album. The guitar-bass-drums rhythm section serves him solidly (no solos), and Lewis' spare, right hand-focused style delivers line after line of conversational, thought-provoking melody. Without the integral improvisation of the MJQ, Lewis' playing, with its grand sense of history, marches to the forefront. It is a hallmark of his generation to continually rework the past, so alongside the new there are returns to MJQ classics, revelatory strolls down familiar Cole Porter and Mercer/Arlen lanes, and other songs that use older tunes as their inspiration. For this master, artistic evolution meant reintroducing himself and his music to attentive listeners of any age. Let not his last invitation go unaccepted. --J.D. Buhl


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