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Elvis Costello
North
Deutsche Grammophon

If you abandoned Elvis Costello with 1993’s The Juliet Letters, now is not the time to reconnect. North, like The Juliet Letters and Costello’s 1998 Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory, finds Costello moving further and further from his New Wave roots. With this latest batch of songs, Costello emulates Broadway balladeers and Frank Sinatra in his mid-’60s September of My Years introspective phase.

With its listless pace, North will send Elvis classicists running for Trust—an album that challenges the definitions of jazz-pop, but unlike North has great hooks and staccato wordplay. It’s not that North isn’t worth the price, but buyer beware: This album’s for wooing your love on crisp autumn nights with wine, roses and a DVD of Casablanca, not for jumping up and down shouting, “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand so badly/I wanna make them wish they never seen me!” (Jed Gottlieb)

Todd Snider
Near Truths and Hotel Rooms
Oh Boy Records

It’s eyebrow-raising at least that a folk singer who turns out such hackneyed studio albums can turn around and release one of the greatest live albums of the young millennium, but that is exactly what Todd Snider has done on Near Truths and Hotel Rooms. Unlike his canned releases, the stage gives Snider room to tell the stories behind his songs, and the yarns truly enrich the listening experience. We’re not talking Bon Jovi on “VH1 Storytellers,” letting the camera know that he “wrote this one when I was really hung over at this hotel in France,” but actual intriguing stories from Snider’s 15 years on the road. From the teachings of wise old barkeep Ms. Virgie to the time he met his wife at a rehab clinic, Snider lets us inside his world, and in doing so, lets us feel as if he’s right there in our living room, shooting the breeze. Unlike the over-layered studio stuff, we find Snider stripped down to nothing more than an acoustic guitar, three or four chords, a harmonica and a cigarette-raspy voice. The songwriting is often funny, sometimes sad, and entirely original. A winner. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Outkast
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Arista

Between Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx and Andre 3000’s The Love Below—essentially two solo albums packaged as an Outkast double album—every pop genre is absorbed, exploited or riffed on. Like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, this album has no use for the simple, repetitive bass-heavy beats that dominate most hip-hop. Along with the required ’70s soul samples, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below uses grand and electric pianos, thrash metal and smooth jazz guitars, and Latin, swing and gospel beats. On his disc, Big Boi rhymes over modern, hook-filled R&B without losing his edge—as if to prove he’s still hard, he’s got his kid in the booth saying “motherfucker” as he laughs “all right, let’s do it, baby.” Andre 3000’s contribution is less cohesive, filled with his best Bootsy Collins/Prince impressions. But, like most of Prince’s later work, The Love Below fluctuates between exsquisite pop-funk and long, boring sexual narratives. The album does provide one perfect single in “Hey Ya!” If you haven’t heard it yet, just wait—you’ll hear it a dozen times on Top 40 radio before Thanksgiving. (Jed Gottlieb)

Shanti Groove
River’s Mould
Self-Released

In a recent Indy interview with Ben Kaufman, the bassist for Yonder Mountain String Band defined bad bluegrass as “people playing bluegrass with drums.” And for the most part, he’s right. The metronomic clang of your typical bluegrass drumbeat is not as alluring as the natural rhythm created by non-percussive instruments. But there is an exception to every rule, and when it comes to bluegrass with drums, that exception may well be Shanti Groove. On this optimistic debut, Shanti unleashes several jamgrass originals on which drummer Chris Carland reveals a jazz background that adds considerable pepper to the bluegrass sound. The band also offers a particularly rousing rendition of John Hartford’s “Julie Bell Swain.” The production leaves something to be desired, as the vocals are occasionally muffled and the harmonies buried, but one can attribute these minor irritations to a shoestring budget, and the shortfall isn’t bad enough to detract from the album’s endearing qualities. Contrary to Kaufman’s stance on bluegrass with drums, fans of Yonder Mountain should be most interested in this disc. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

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