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The Listening Room: Jason Mraz, Rise Against and more...
Few artists could get away with an album title as cloyingly positive as "Yes!," but Jason Mraz is certainly among those exceptions. The San Diego troubadour's inherent optimism is infectiously and convincingly genuine, not to mention tuneful; even when his world is falling part -- as it is on "Yes!'s" "3 Things" -- Mraz comes out declaring that "things are looking up." And if he occasionally comes off like Barry Manilow's hipster incarnate his catchy melodicism usually wins the day. Mraz has also been successful in finding fresh ways to express his sunny disposition, and on "Yes!" he takes a more earth, acoustic-flavored turn, playing and writing with Raining Jane, whose violins, cellos, mandolins, pedal steels, sitars and chorale backing vocals bring a soulful richness to the set's 14 tracks. "Everywhere" is "Yes!'s" overt pop moment, big beat and all, while "Quiet," "Out of My Hands" and "Back to Earth" explore rootsy terrain and "You Can Rely on Me" and the closing six-minute opus "Shine" dip into gospel territory. The album certainly isn't pain-free -- brimming love songs give way to break-up laments about two-thirds of the way through -- but Mraz even makes sadness easy to listen to and "Yes!" an affirmative entry in his catalog.
Rise Against, "The Black Market" (DGC Interscope): ***
Chicago's Rise Against is a punk band at heart, and more overtly outspoken and political than nearly 100 percent of its peers. But the group is more musically sophisticated as well, and its seventh studio set continues to push forward without sacrificing the blunt, attack-dog fury that's Rise Against's stock in trade. The band certainly comes out swinging with the likes of "The Great Die-Off" and the anthemic single "I Don't Want To Be Here Anymore," but it's mid-album cuts such as "Sudden Life," "A Beautiful Indifference" and "Methadone" that showcase an exciting dynamic reach. And on "People Live Here," frontman Tim McIlrath surrounds himself with acoustic guitar and string, a change of pace that's as raw and potent as any of its harder rocking companion tracks.
New & Noteworthy:
Marsha Ambrosius, "Friends & Lovers" (RCA): The Floetry alumnus' second solo album includes guest appearances by Charlie Wilson, Lindsey Stirling and Skye.
Balsam Range, "Five"
Big Wreck, "Ghosts" (Rounder): The Canadian rockers deliver their second album after reuniting in 2012 following an 11-year hiatus.
Bleachers, "Strange Desire" (RCA): The debut outing from the new band formed by fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff includes collaborations with Grimes and Yoko Ono.
Cowboy Jack Clement, "For Once & For All" (I.R.S.): The late country-western icon's final album features a who's-who of helpers, including Vince Gill, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale and many more.
Fink, "Hard Believer" (Ninja Tune): A new collection of original material from the British singer-songwriter follows last years collaboration with the Netherlands' Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Kate Garibaldi, "Follow Your Heart" (Living Dream Music): The Americana singer-songwriter works with the Magik*Magik Orchestra for new textures on her seventh album.
John Hiatt, "Terms of My Surrender" (New West): The veteran singer-songwriter focuses on acoustic guitar playing for much of his latest collection of literate and personal reflections.
Peter Himmelman, "The Boat That Carries Us" (Himmasongs): The latest set from Bob Dylan's always engaging son-in-laws marks the first time Himmelman has composed lyrics first and then built songs around them.
JPNSGRLS, "Circulation" (Light Organ): The Vancouver modern rockers' first full-length album follows the buzz generated earlier this year by "The Sharkweek EP."
Loverboy, "Unfinished Business" (Loverboy): The Canadian rock group's first set of new material in seven years was built from song demos the group had worked on in the past but never completed for an album.
Audra McDonald, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill: Original Broadway Cast Recording" (P.S. Classics): McDonald`s turn recreating Billie Holiday's legendary performances won a Tony Award, which makes this a pretty essential listen.
Morrissey, "World Peace is None of Your Business" (Harvest/Capitol): The first new solo album in six years by the former Smith frontman.
Richard Reed Parry, "Music For Heart and Breath" (Deutsche Grammophon): The Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist makes his first foray into neo-classical music on these six carefully executed pieces.
Pennywise, "Yesterdays" (Epitaph): The Southern California punk troupe`s 11th studio album sees the return of frontman Jim Lindberg and includes songs written by its late bassist Jason Thirsk.
Plastikman, "EX" (Mute): Windsor/Detroit electronic pioneer Richie Hawtin reactivated his most famous persona for the Guggenheim Museum's International Gala.
Raffi, "Love Bug" (Rounder): The Elvis of the children's music set returns with his first new material in more than a decade.
Xander Smith, "Outside Features" (Songs and Dance): The Los Angeles artist gets help from members of Joy Division/New Order and other notable players on his sophomore album.
Suicide Silence, "You Can't Stop Me" (Nuclear Blast): The hardcore metal troupe's fourth album introduces new frontman Hernan "Eddie" Hermida.
Trampled By Turtles, "Wild Animals" (Thirty Tigers): The rootsy Minnesota quintet's latest album was produced by Low`s Alan Sparhawk
Weird Al Yankovic, "Mandatory Fun" (RCA): The Weird one parodies Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," Pharrell Williams' "Happy," Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and more on his 14th album.
From The Vaults: Cocteau Twins, "Heaven or Las Vegas" (4AD); John Coltrane, "Trane's Blue Note Session" (Blue Note/UMe); Duke Ellington, "Contrapuntal Riposte" (Squatty Poo); Jerry Garcia Band, "GarciaLive Volume Four: March 22nd, 1978 Veteran's Hall" (ATO); Monty Python's Flying Circus, "Monty Python Sings (again)"
Soundtracks: Mark Cancina, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" (Disney); Various Artists, "Wish I Was here" (Columbia)
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