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Now Hear This

New music by The Clipse, Johnny Paycheck, Kid Sister and more.

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The Clipse, “Til the Casket Drops” (Columbia)

The Clipse are rappers' rappers. Their cocksure verses have been praised to the heavens by emcees and bloggers alike, but commercial success doggedly eludes them. “Til the Casket Drops,” their latest, finds the brothers Thornton — real siblings Malice and Pusha T — pulling a few punches. Perhaps because of legal troubles, or perhaps because they've finally freed themselves from a disastrous tenure at Jive, or perhaps because they were simply getting bored, the Clipse loses the slice-of-street-life, coke-rap rhymes and bull's-eye on boasts and beats. The former are compact and clever as always, slight in their subject matter but with real swing in their flow on “Popular Demand” and “Eyes on Me.” The beats, as laid out by the likes of the Neptunes and DJ Khalil, thump insistently, alternating between audacious (“Counseling” cribs from Laura Branigan) and cluttered (the busy “Life Change”). It makes for a shaky, uneven album, but there's still a long time before that casket drops. HHHII — Stephen M. Deusner

Johnny Paycheck, “Nowhere to Run (The Little Darlin' Years 1966-1970”) (Omni)

Johnny Paycheck was a lot more than just the bandana-wearing redneck who popularized “Take This Job and Shove It” in the 1970s. While recording for the Little Darlin' label and producer Aubrey Mayhew, the Ohio-born country artist spent most of the previous decade carving out a forceful discography that was as potent and quietly progressive as anyone in popular music; the roots of  “outlaw country” can be found right here. As a singer of his own original murder ballads — “(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill” says it all — Paycheck invented a frightening alter-ego who saw no reason to sugarcoat or downplay feelings of nihilism, suicide and hate. Paycheck was capable of singing about nuclear holocaust in a calm, mellow croon (“The Cave”) while making a song about a sad one-night stand (“Don't Tell My Wife”) sound like the end of the world. But just when you think Paycheck's world is too psychotic and brutal, too concentrated for mainstream consumption, he delivers a soaring ballad like “Wherever You Are” that touches the heart. This newly compiled collection of Paycheck's early Little Darlin' material isn't as strong as the out-of-print anthology called “The Real Mr. Heartache,” but it still makes today's darker-themed indie rockers (your Nick Caves and Will Oldhams) sound like wussy boys hogging the mic at country karaoke night. HHHHI — Don Harrison

Kid Sister, “Ultra Violet” (Downtown/Universal Republic)

Kid Sister danced her way out of the Chicago party rap scene in 2007 with “Pro Nails,” a bubbly salon jam (featuring Kanye West) that painted the artist born Melissa Young as part Monie Love, part Cyndi Lauper. But this girl didn't have much fun having fun. She took more than two years and innumerable studio tweaks to get her debut to stores, missing her moments by many months. “Ultra Violet” is full of glow-in-the-dark, post-M.I.A. bangers featuring Estelle, Cee-Lo and A-Trak, but for all the work that went into it, the album sounds fairly anonymous. Kid Sister is a charismatic rapper, with an exaggerated sass in her flow and a mischievous presence that lives up to her name, but here she's stuck chanting half-hooks and delivering largely forgettable rhymes with little personality or charm. The beats kick hard enough to make it a functional party album, but after so long, it's impossible to register “Ultra Violet” as anything but a disappointment. HHIII — Stephen M. Deusner

Vijay Iyer, “Historicity” (ACT Music) 4

Iyer is one of the most interesting pianists to emerge in the past few years, combining obvious intelligence, impeccable and eclectic taste in influences and fierce advocacy for his South Asian heritage. Most of his previous releases have been collaborations with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, along with a couple of funny and angry projects with poet Michael Ladd. It's surprising that it's has taken until now for him to put out that staple of jazz pianist repertoire: the trio recording. With its cover-heavy content and pedal-to-the-metal attack, the CD plays a bit like an edgier, less-lyrical version of the Bad Plus. The songs run the range from standards such as “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) to appropriate modern pop sources like MIA (referencing Iyer's South Asian connection) and avant-garde stalwarts like the late Julius Hemphill. The torrential, angular playing seldom relaxes until the closing, seething “Segment for Sentiment.” Even the usually yearning “Somewhere” is all nervous pauses and run-on sentences. Iyer's musical language is very much his own: asymmetrical cascades with his right hand with flashes of harmonic comment from his left. After a number of very fine recordings, “Historicity” may be Iyer's breakthrough, a bracing work far less interested in comfortable beauty than sharp-honed ideas. Easily one of the most significant CDs of the year, it may be a work easier to admire than to love. HHHHI — Peter McElhinney

Dave Rawlings Machine “Friend of a Friend” (Acony)

Fans waiting patiently since 2003 for a new album from rootsy songstress Gillian Welch should be more than pleased with this thoughtful debut from her partner, guitarist Dave Rawlings — if only because Welch accompanies him on nearly every track. The album opens with the blissful country ballad, “Ruby,” sounding like some forgotten AM countrypolitan classic by Glenn Campbell as interpreted by John Prine or Levon Helm (“Just like an old time telegraph man/I came here with a simple job to do”). The next track, “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, to Be High),” written with Ryan Adams, amps up the album's relaxed, spontaneous vibe with catchy bluegrass, showing off some of the other steady contributors here, which include members of Old Crow Medicine Show, Ryan Adams' band and the Heartbreakers. Recording in Nashville's famed RCA Studio B, Rawlings compensates for his thin, reedy voice with free-flowing, rich guitar work that meanders but never goes completely off-rail. The centerpiece is a 10-minute version of Conor Oberst's melancholic ode to his muse, “Method Acting,” which segues effortlessly into a less-successful rendition of the Neil Young classic, “Cortez the Killer,” replacing dark chills with forlorn wistfulness. While the cover “Monkey and the Engineer” should've been canned, the album closes out on truly high note: “Bells of Harlem” is one of the prettiest songs of the year, sounding like a '70s Dylan classic, evocative and elemental with subtle strings by the noted arranger and composer Jimmy “Bridge Over Troubled Water” Haskell. HHHHI — Brent Baldwin

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