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Listening Room: The Roots, Steve Winwood and more...
The Roots, “Rising Down” (Island Def Jam) ***
Two years ago, on “Game Theory, the Roots offered a darkly emotional journey into the soul, a disquieting discourse on internal demons. “Rising Down” is dark as well, but the perspective is aimed outward at the state of the world as perceived by rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and the rest of the Philadelphia crew — and you can be sure that the recent turns of their home town, where murder and crime rates are up and high school graduation rates are down, provided plenty of impetus for these 15 tracks. In that regard, it’s easy to understand why the Roots ultimately decided to leave “Birthday Girl,” a significantly more lighthearted collaboration with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, off the album completely, consigning it to the world of iTunes downloads. The Roots’ worldview on “Rising Down” — which takes its title from William T. Vollmann’s 2004 book “Rising Up and Rising Down” — can be off-putting to some; we’ve grown to expect a sort of positivism and consciousness from the sextet over the years. But there’s hope even amidst the pessimistic essays and gloomy character studies, mostly thanks to drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s interesting-as-ever production. Moody atmospherics embellish songs such as “Criminal,” “Singing Man” and the title track, while “I Will Not Apologize” is driven by “Captain” Kirk Douglas’ slinky guitar and a jazzy sax line. “I Can’t Help It” boasts a funky carnival vibe, and fast lyrical flows put some oomph behind “75 Bars” and “Get Busy.” The Roots get good contributions from guests such as Common, Talib Kweli, Saigon, Mos Def and DJ Jazzy Jeff, and by the time “Rising Down” closes with a one-two punch of resilience (“The Show”) and celebration (“Rising Up”), we’re left with no doubt that the show, as they note, “must go on” — and we’re happy for that.
Steve Winwood, “Nine Lives” (Columbia) ***
The rock veteran’s first outing in five years displays the same offhanded excellence he’s mined on its predecessors, as well as during his days with Traffic and Blind Faith. This time, however, the nine songs have a more pronounced ensemble sensibility that gives a generous allotment of sonic room to members of Winwood’s band — particularly flutist Paul Booth and percussionist Karl Vanden Bossche, whose polyrhythms percolate through most of the tracks. The rootsy album-starter “I’m Not Drowning” is a fresh feel for Winwood, who also explores African flavors on “Hungry Man” and Latin textures on “Secrets.” And Eric Clapton’s stinging guitar work on “Dirty City” is almost worth the price of admission alone.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
Augustana, “Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt” (Epic): The sophomore album from the San Diego rockers whose debut put “Boston” on the musical map.
Henry Butler, “PiaNOLA Live” (Basin Street): The acclaimed Crescent City pianist struts his stuff in a concert setting on his latest disc.
Def Leppard, “Songs From the Sparkle Lounge” (Bludgeon Riffola/Island/ UMe): The British rock vets’ first all-new album in six years features a collaboration with country star Tim McGraw on the first single, “Nine Lives.”
Estelle, “Shine” (Homeschool/Atlantic): Debut album from the British R&B diva and John Legend protege.
Newton Faulkner, “Built By Robots” (Aware/ Columbia): The dreadlocked British singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso’s debut hits these shores nine months after topping the iTunes chart in his homeland.
Robert Forster, “The Evangelist” (Yep Roc): The Go-Betweens founder enlists members of the band’s touring lineup to pay tribute to his late partner, Grant McLennan.
Lyfe Jennings, “Lyfe Change” (Sony Urban/ Columbia): T.I., Snoop Dogg and Wyclef Jean are the marquee guests on the Toledo-born R&B star’s third album.
Kidz in the Hall, “The In Crowd” (Duck Down/Major League): The Ivy League duo gets help on its second album from Clipse, Gym Class Heroes, Sean Price and more.
Earl Klugh, “The Spice of Life” (Koch): The Detroit Smooth Jazz guitarist’s first fullproduction set in nine years is also his first album of any kind since 2005.
Madonna, “Hard Candy” (Warner Bros.): The Material Girl from Michigan follows her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction with a dance-oriented set featuring collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and other hot current hitmakers.
Sarah McLachlan, “Rarities, B-Sides 2 and Other Stuff, Volume 2” (Arista):
This set of non-album material includes duets with Bryan Adams, Emmylou Harris and Cyndi Lauper.
Mudcrutch, “Mudcrutch” (Reprise): Tom Petty re-forms his pre-Heartbreakers band more than 30 years after it broke up.
Portishead, “Third” (Mercury/Island): The British trip-hop trio breaks a 10-year hiatus with its appropriately titled third studio effort.
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Santogold, “Santogold” (Downtown/Lizard King): The highly anticipated debut by the sassy singer and rapper from Brooklyn.
Simone, “Simone on Simone” (High Priestess/ Koch): Nina Simone’s daughter steps into the family business with her first solo album.
Phil Stacey, “Phil Stacey” (Lyric Street): The 2007 American Idol finalist reveals his country boy roots on his debut album, whose single (“If You Didn’t Love Me”) was cowritten by Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox.
Carly Simon, “This Kind of Love” (Hear Music): The veteran songstress takes her first set of original material since 2000 into the Starbucks realm.
Testament, “The Formation of Damnation” (Nuclear Blast): The thrash metal kings from San Francisco switch labels for their first all-new album in seven years.
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