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Maura O'Connell "Walls and Windows"; Creta Bourzia "1002"; Clyde Wrenn "The Bluecliff Record"; New End Original "Thriller"

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Maura O'Connell "Walls and Windows" (Sugar Hill)

Stirring and heartfelt, Maura O'Connell's singing displays unparalleled integrity, and this new recording bursts with a passion that is too often lost in the mix for many singers. She may not write her own songs, but O'Connell has the gift for creating her own little world with each tune. Throughout "Windows" she casts a peaceful and life-affirming spell. Patty Griffin's "I Wonder" aches with question, and the hope extended in Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy's "Walls" takes on an intimate honesty. Griffin's "Long Ride Home" eloquently captures a heartbreaking with regret as O'Connell cuts to the chase with effortless resolve. Even an oldie such as Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" is thankfully new again and you believe it in your soul when O'Connell joyously proclaims her love. John Prine's "Sleepy Eyed Boy" closes the recording on the perfect wistful and sorrowful note. Backed by some of Nashville's best session folks and produced by Ray Kennedy, O'Connell's latest effort is a must for those looking for release from today's self-absorbed pop scene. This is great singing, pure and simple. — Ames Arnold

Creta Bourzia "1002" (Porcelain Productions)

Creta Bourzia rocks balls, that simple. This Pittsburgh band hooked up with our own Porcelain Productions to produce "1002," which I guess is a play on 2001. Even so, Creta Bourzia leaves the playfulness right there and proceeds to get down to the business of getting down with some of the cleanest, meanest math metal I've heard since The F—ing Champs blew eardrums with "IV" last year.

Creta Bourzia doesn't hit you with the tongue-in-cheek/irony one-two punch like The Champs, but it matches its contemporaries with incredible songwriting and musicianship to back it up. The straight-up instrumentals: Each one is a minimasterpiece. And when Creta Bourzia does feel like throwing in some singing it's tolerable.

From the song titles — "Marijuana Tragedy," "Pittsburgh Platter" and "We're quitting tomorrow" — I thought this was going to be another disposable nu-metal album. Now I know the real deal, and this is going to be my go-to record whenever I want to bang my pseudo-intellectual head. — Wayne Melton

Clyde Wrenn "The Bluecliff Record" (Self-released)

It seems as though much of today's music is becoming harder to pigeonhole into one genre. Jazz musicians are incorporating hip-hop; bluegrass boys are firing off renditions of rap songs and heavy-metal staples. Funk bands are flavoring with salsa; rock bands are dabbling in electronica — the list goes on. The melting pot of music of the new millennium can be attributed as much to the blossoming Global Village of artists as to the influences these diverse musicians are moved by. Clyde Wrenn is no exception. The Blue Ridge Mountain native can't be thrown simply into bluegrass, folk or country. He clearly draws from each of these areas. Many of his songs have an acoustic ballad feel, but expand with the help of drummer Chris Kirshbaum, and bassist Michael Minori, who counts The Ramones, The Beastie Boys and Herbie Hancock among his favorites. On his fourth album, Wrenn also enlists collaborators ranging from members of Camper Van Beethoven to Ministry and Tool.

Along with all the different influences, past and present, which leave their mark on this album, there is the diverse instrumentation as well. From the weeping violin in "Sawdust" or the slide guitar in "Someday Song" and "Liberty" to the South-of-the-Border brass-and-percussion-driven "Lighted Life," Wrenn continuously mixes it up. Adding to the diversity is his airy yet dominant voice that can sound so gentle in one breath and then explode into a fireball of anger and passion in the next. With all this being said, the true magic within "Bluecliff" is the songwriting. While he has been perhaps prematurely and unfairly compared to some of the great craftsmen of modern music, Wrenn is a genius with the written word. Perhaps the highlight of the album is the violently charged, leave-you-breathless "The Terrible Curse of Reginald Snopes III," in which the narrator takes us through a twisted tale of revenge: "But this rifle will guide me to peace/ These bullets are faithful at least/ When I catch what I'm chasing and put it to rest my heart might befriend me again." The only weakness is that the 17-song album is a bit overloaded. With so many tracks, it is sometimes difficult to avoid getting repetitive, despite all the efforts. — Ford Gunter

New End Original "Thriller" (Jade Tree Records)

Jade Tree Records just seems to be the little record label that could these days — an indie company that bands of the highest caliber seem to be finding their way to. The debut effort "Thriller," from this latest Jade Tree signing, is a high-octane dose of power pop whose punk roots run deep. I'm sure this is in large part related to the group's composition, which features ex-members of Texas Is The Reason, and Far. From the phenomenal opening track, "Lukewarm" (which rails against the lifestyle of a typical suburbanite), New End Original reminds me of other great post-hardcore groups such as Sense Field and Farside, both in the nature of the group's intelligently written lyrics and wonderfully penned songs. The airy feel to a few of the tracks might induce hints of the moodiness characterized by more recognizable groups like Coldplay and Radiohead, but this won't be enough to turn off the most diehard of emo afficionados. The boys of New End Original make good with their first full-length musical outing, an album whose music will hopefully remove some of the stigma attached to that particular title ever since Michael Jackson went dancing with the living dead. Now THAT was scary. — Angelo DeFranzo

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