Spoon, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" (Merge)
Austin-based Spoon begins its latest on a deceptively predictable note with the punchy "Don't Make Me a Target," offering everything we've come to expect from the indie rockers since their 2002 breakthrough, "Kill the Moonlight." But the album, dropping July 10, is punctuated by more experimental songs, suggesting a less familiar Spoon. There's "The Ghost of You Lingers," a marriage of piano (the ga-ga-ga-sounding chords inspired the album title) and eerie vocals that winds up channeling the '80s; listeners might find themselves feeling trapped in a pencil-sketched music video reminiscent of a-ha. But subsequent songs find the band back on a pop track: the vaguely Latin "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case"; the reggae-infused "Eddie's Ragga"; and the breezy, albeit strangely titled, "Black Like Me" (since everyone in Spoon is lily white). Most impressive is "The Underdog," the album's first single and its only track produced by musical Renaissance man Jon Brion (film composer and instrumentalist for some P.T. Anderson films). It's an upbeat, brass-filled celebration grounded by Britt Daniel's scruffy vocals, creating an overall sound like Sufjan Stevens after a bender, or maybe Bob Dylan on uppers. In the end, though, it's all Spoon, and front man Daniel holds everything together with a voice so seductive it almost isn't fair the man could make an instruction manual sound sexy. Sarah Mogin
Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators, "Keep Reachin' Up" (Timmion)
American expatriate Nicole Willis is part of a new breed of funky divas recapturing and repackaging the glory years of soul for cult audiences around the globe. Like Sharon Jones, whose vocal confidence she shares (though not her range or improvisational skill), Willis has been earning respect on the club circuit while forging her own world-weary but sultry-smooth vocal delivery think Vicki Anderson with touches of Marva Whitney. Since the mid-'80s, she has performed with new-school groovers The Brand New Heavies before joining an early incarnation of Deee-Lite and later working with the legendary Curtis Mayfield, whose influence can clearly be heard. Here she finds a perfectly tight backing group in the Helsinki-based Soul Investigators, who sound well-versed in every trend from R&B and soul from the past 40 years. From the plucky, opening string intro of "Feeling Free," which sounds like a lost dance-floor classic from the '70s, to the catchy, girl-group hooks of "Invisible Man," the album establishes a pitch-perfect yesteryear vibe, thanks in part to Willis' husband, Matador alum Jimi Tenor (flute, tenor sax, string arrangements). Nothing here is quite as revelatory as Amy Winehouse's hit album, likely the mod-soul album of the year, but old-school fans will appreciate this as a truly accomplished effort, one at home in any soul collection. Brent Baldwin
Michael Brecker, "Pilgrimage" (Heads Up)
"Pilgrimage" is the last recording from multi-Grammy winning Brecker (who died in January), but there is nothing death-haunted about it. The music, all original, is hard-edged and vital, bursting with ideas and stripped of sentimentality. It's a fitting goodbye from the saxophonist, whose career balanced commercial success with bracing integrity, bridging the ever-widening chasm between the artistic innovations of John Coltrane with the essentially conservative appetite of pop music. Brecker is accompanied by a fittingly first-rank band: pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist John Patitucci and, especially, Pat Metheny. (On his own projects, Metheny's melodic imagination is all too frequently mired in synthesized studio syrup; the guitarist has done some of his best work on Brecker's straightforward sessions.) The playing pauses halfway through with "When Can I Kiss You Again?" a bit of poetic balladry amidst the energetic improvisation. Throughout, there is a marked discipline and intelligence. It takes heart to play as if there will be no tomorrow, but even rarer courage to play as if there will be. Peter McElhinney
Carol Wincenc & Gena Raps, "Mozart at Eight: Sonatas for Keyboard and Flute, K. 10-15" (Naxos)
During Mozart's 250th birthday celebration last year, concert halls around the world were filled with the sophisticated strains of Mozart's symphonies, operas and concertos. But it was rare to hear a performance focusing solely on Mozart's early works. This CD fills that void. Included are six seldom-heard works for keyboard and flute by Mozart, age 8.
While some classical music connoisseurs may find the music a bit too simplistic for their tastes, for those who enjoy the lighter side of classical music, it is a refreshing performance by two accomplished musicians. Flutist Carol Wincenc and pianist Gena Raps capture the playfulness of Mozart, who was inspired by the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach in these compositions, before his compositional brilliance was complicated by such things as puberty. Wincenc's flute interpretation of the music, which is usually performed with violin, is a welcome alternative and fits seamlessly together with the playing of Raps. Dedicated to Her Majesty Charlotte, queen of Great Britain, the sonatas were written while Mozart was in England with his father. While not by any means the best Mozart compositions, they are nonetheless an important part of the complete genius of Mozart and an admirable project from two musicians capable of a much higher level of virtuosity. And this only makes the childlike innocence and purity of their playing all the more commendable. Chantal Panozzo
Pissed Jeans "Hope for Men" (Sub Pop)
The angry-sounding young men behind the punk noise beast known as Pissed Jeans are all about reclaiming Allentown, Pa., from Billy Joel's syrupy ode to its steelworkers. Today, the music scene there is filled with brash young hard-core groups, sweating it out in dingy clubs and attending record fairs. As this brutally propulsive record proves, Pissed Jeans are the best to emerge from a litter that includes Pearls & Brass (signed to Drag City). From the opening, dirty squeals of amp-raping feedback, comparisons to the barely controlled chaos of Jesus Lizard (or Scratch Acid) come to mind. Lead singer Matt Korvette sounds like Henry Rollins circa his Black Flag days, screaming and howling goofily humdrum lyrics ("I've still got you ice cream/'cause sometimes my life is less than a dream. sweet bowl of sugar, ease my mind") over thunderously rumbling bass lines and mercilessly taut drumming. This is one of those rare bands that do "noisy songs" well, with all four members on the same page in terms of creative talent and direction. Guitarist Bradley Fry is particularly impressive as he sprays a terrifying sonic palette of distorted, metallic-tinged feedback that colors the album. There are a few ploddingly slow numbers, but when the Jeans crank it up, they're one of the most urgent groups around. B.B.