Whether you're a fan of arty rock (Radiohead), feel-good, melodic rock (Travis) or tormented hard rock (Staind), there's something for you in this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's fresh in pop music on an album budget of $50 a month. The adventurous listener will check out all three.
India.Arie's "Acoustic Soul" (Motown). Along with Sunshine Anderson and Alicia Keys, Arie is part of a talented group of female arrivals raised on hip-hop but schooled in classic R&B. The result here is a strongly crafted debut album highlighted by "Video," an expression of self-worth that reminds you of the understated self-assurance of Lauryn Hill. "I'm not your average girl from the video," she declares in the good-natured track. She's talking about avoiding hip-hop's obsession with materialism, but she could also be speaking about her strengths as an artist.
Joe Henry's "Scar" (Mammoth). Henry is more than simply a talented singer-songwriter. He's also fearless, risky and enlightened. Fearless a' la Leonard Cohen when examining the limits of human will. Risky in the way he shares Tom Waits' fondness for testing an audience's tolerance for exotic sounds and ideas. Enlightened in the sense that he is a rare songwriter who gives his musicians the freedom to compete with his words. The album's tone is dark and questioning, served up in a folk-jazz style both smart and fresh.
Staind's "Break the Cycle" (Flip/Elektra). If you look at the one-word song titles in this metal band's runaway bestseller, you might assume you're in for more standard alienation and rage: "Pressure," "Suffer," "Waste." ... But the tenacious music is far from one-dimensional. Aaron Lewis is the first singer for a metal band in years to actually speak with the vulnerability and heart of a poet. "Epiphany" may be another one-word title, but the song itself is a beautifully designed statement about reaching for salvation.
Radiohead's "Amnesiac" (Capitol). In this striking collection, these brainy British hotshots substitute electronica-inspired sound collages for rock's most proven pop communication devices, including traditional song structure and clear, concise vocals. You do miss some of the compactness and accessibility of "OK Computer" in places, but the album's cornerstones are so enriching that it will make those of us who dismissed "Kid A" go back and give that album another try. Attention "Sopranos" creator David Chase: "I Might Be Right" is a bluesy, brooding tune just waiting to go into one of next year's episodes. Ron Sexsmith's "Blue Boy" (spinART). Sexsmith can seem awfully passive as a performer, but there's a lot of fight in him. After early acclaim, things turned sour for him at powerhouse Interscope Records and his future seemed very much in doubt. But he has found a new label and given us what may be his most satisfying album. The folkie still writes about life's rites and rituals with a quiet wisdom, but the tunes are now backed by a wide range of musical settings, from straight-out honky-tonk verve to supper-club elegance. Steve Earle co-produced.
Travis' "The Invisible Band" (Epic). Yes, life can be a struggle and it can be unfair, and much of the best rock chronicles those moments. But there's also a need for music that makes your spirit soar--and that's the specialty of this Scottish quartet.