Rhonda Vincent, "Good Thing Going" (Rounder)
The good thing Rhonda Vincent has going sure isn't a relationship. The first few songs on her 11th album tackle the typical country music topics of bad breakups and bitter romantic betrayals with atypical wit and sensitivity. On opener "I'm Leavin'," she introduces herself by abandoning a lousy lover, then worries over it on "World's Biggest Fool." There are some happier moments on the catchy and clever "Just One of a Kind" and "Hit Parade of Love," but most of the album sounds like her good thing has long since gone.
On the other hand, perhaps the good thing Vincent really has going is a country-bluegrass hybrid that emphasizes the Missouri native's expressive vocals and sharp fiddling. Alternating between mountain stomps and Music Row ballads, Vincent occasionally delves too deeply into Nashville sap, as on the shallowly reassuring "I Will See You Again" and "The Water Is Wide," but generally, her latest release is a consistent showcase for a musician breaking and remaking her own mold. -- Stephen Deusner
Various Artists, "Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics (1918-1955)" (Dust to Digital)
Talk about a global music education in one disc: This sparkling collection from the consistently outstanding label Dust to Digital (based in Atlanta) features enthralling old recordings from countries as diverse as Syria, Thailand, Ireland, India, Vietnam, Sweden, Japan, Ukraine, Serbia, Laos, Greece, Cameroon and Bali. Assembled and annotated by Baltimore record-store owner and writer Ian Nagoski, all of the tracks are newly remastered from 78 rpm discs, with 18 of 24 songs appearing on CD for the first time, and all but one having never been released in the United States.
But the great thing about this disc, besides the cleanly restored, intriguing music, is that it doesn't feel like an academic collection, but rather a personal mix from a passionate listener and fan. While everything here is worthwhile, some of my favorites include the Northumbrian piping swells of "Mallorca"; the meditative Vietnamese instrumental "Nam-Nhi-tu" (1930), featuring an ethereal performance using the dan bau, a monochord instrument native to that country; an early hit from Indian singing legend Lata Mangeshkar titled "Aayega Aanewaala"; and a folksy recording by a 10-year-old boy accompanying himself on zither while reading a poem by a Finnish socialist. Most everything here is at turns beautiful, haunting and memorable.
An interesting side note: Nagoski says he bought all these recordings for less than $125 and within 30 minutes of his home in Baltimore proving you don't have to travel far for musical gems. Brent Baldwin
Lupe Fiasco, "The Cool" (Atlantic)
Chi-town continues to make a name for itself with intelligent hip-hop courtesy of Lupe Fiasco's ambitious and dark "The Cool." Instead of hating on the ghetto-fabulous mentality, he opts to dissect it with a conceptual sophomore album that takes the trappings of misguided youth and personifies them in three main characters: The Game, The Streets and The Cool.
The most arresting tracks are "Streets on Fire," which captures a seething, Jason Bourne sense of danger, and the ominous "Put You on Game." But "Dumb It Down" should be the crown jewel of Fiasco's album for epitomizing his dogged refusal to water down lyrics for mindless club anthems or empty thug posing. Fiasco eschews the big-name producers of his debut (Kanye, Pharrell Williams, etc.) to work with unlikely collaborators such as Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy, 1st and 15th's Soundtrakk and British rock/trip-hop group Unkle. Snoop Dogg's appearance on "Hi-Definition" is the only high-profile name on the album. Even then, Snoop's touch is light enough to keep Fiasco at the center of it all. The resulting album feels as expansive as his new arsenal of stylistic flows. William Ashanti Hobbs
Kate Nash, "Made of Bricks" (Geffen)
She cites Bikini Kill, the Jabberwocky and Bob Marley as influences, so it comes as no surprise that Kate Nash is a slightly odd bird. The acclaimed newcomer could easily be mistaken for English singer-songwriter Lily Allen on the infectious "Foundations" and "Pumpkin Soup," in which electro-beats flank piano melodies amid quick-witted lyrics. Most of the disc, however, finds Nash carving out a niche for herself from an eclectic soundscape while maintaining a pop structure that makes it quite enjoyable. Doo-wop harmonies, drunken circus bands and keyboard loops all make an appearance, along with bizarre tales that find her conversing with her skeleton and praising simple pleasures like cheese on toast. Verging on a folk song, "Birds" stands out as an acoustic surprise showcasing Nash's acrobatic vocal skills. This Brit has proven that being strangely unpredictable can be a virtue, and she's worth the hype. Hilary Langford
The National Lights, "The Dead Will Walk, Dear" (Bloodshake Records)
Hushed melodies and sorrowful lyrics fill The National Lights' dreamlike release. The Richmond-based band features Jacob Thomas Berns (vocals, guitar, bells) and Ernest Christian Kiehne Jr. (lap-steel, organ, banjo, vocals, et al.), backed by singer Sonya Maria Cotton, who provides the floating vocal harmonies of these otherworldly tunes. Released last year, the disc is worth tracking down for its distraught but eloquent themes. Dead loves and dismal atmospheres fill the lyrics, while the arrangements provide well-lit windows of hope (most notably Cotton's rich vocals and the intense, banjo-reinforced refrain of the title track). The delicate "Midwest Town" joins the hands of cynicism and sentiment with touching lines like "I'm either sick or in love with you," while the train-wreck morbidity of "Swimming in the Swamp," like the rest of this album, ends up being a guilty pleasure. Sarah Moore