Allison Moorer, "Mockingbird" (New Line)
The first quarter of 2008 isn't even over and we've already heard three fairly high-profile cover albums from female country-soul singers. Allison Moorer's sixth album, "Mockingbird," proves a better grab-bag effort than Cat Power's lackluster "Jukebox," but it can't sustain a mood quite as well as Shelby Lynne's sharp Dusty Springfield homage "Just a Little Lovin'."
Inspired by an admirably diverse array of artists, "Mockingbird" soars highest when Moorer's cover choices are a little left of obvious, such as the McGarrigle sisters' "Go Leave" and Gillian Welch's "Revelator," the album's standout track. But "Ring of Fire" and Nina Simone's "Sugar in My Bowl" are so familiar and iconic that Moorer sounds grounded, unable to put her stamp on the songs no matter how much she changes the arrangements. Her powerhouse vocals sound out of place on Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot," and the bluesy shuffle of Ma Rainey's "Daddy, Goodbye Blues" is, like too much on "Mockingbird," simply beyond her interpretive abilities. -- Stephen Deusner
Michael Jackson, "25th Anniversary of Thriller" (Sony)
After 25 years, is there anything left to say about Michael Jackson's "Thriller" the world's best-selling album? The definitive edition of the pop masterpiece was released about five years ago, with bonus tracks and extensive interviews with producer Quincy Jones and writer Rod Temperton. With the secrets of "Thriller" already revealed, coming up with something special for the silver anniversary was a daunting challenge that undoubtedly left Jackson desperate for something new. So he called Fergie.
The Black Eyed Peas singer appears on one of five remixed tracks with Will.I.Am and Kanye West splitting production duties. Only the revisit of "The Girl Is Mine," with Will.I.Am replacing Sir Paul's vocals, is worthy of a second listen. The rest of the tracks don't mesh well with Jackson's 1980s style and threaten to tarnish the legend of the perfect pop album. A dreary outtake from the original sessions, "For All Time," is a skippable moment.
But this is "Thriller." No amount of remixing or updating could ever eradicate the power and impact of this seminal work. The original songs here sound as robust and infectious as ever. (For true audiophiles, there's a vinyl edition.) Also inside the gold-framed packaging is a DVD with all the music videos and Jackson's career-making "Motown 25" performance. This may not be the best version of Michael Joseph Jackson's eighth solo effort, but it's thrilling enough. Craig Belcher
Tift Merritt "Another Country" (Fantasy/Concord)
In the liner notes to her third album, "Another Country," Tift Merritt recounts a particularly fruitful sojourn in Paris, during which she recuperated from touring, learned French and wrote most of these 11 songs. The result is an inspired collection of well-wrought country rock that draws more from late-career Emmylou than from Lucinda.
Wearing her vulnerabilities like badges, the North Carolina singer-songwriter understates her compositions, paring the music back to emphasize her plainspoken songwriting and wounded voice. Occasionally Merritt pulls back too much, as on the classic-rock "Morning Is My Destination" and "My Heart Is Free," on which her vocals can't keep up with the band. She puts even more distance from the more Nashville-friendly sounds of previous records with the glorious downer "Keep You Happy" and the soulful, horn-punctuated "Tell Me Something True." With its muted Parisian accordion and Merritt's gracefully accented French, the closer "Mille Tendresses" may be both her biggest departure and her biggest accomplishment. S.D.
Ben Allison & Man Size Safe, "Little Things Run the World" (Palmetto Records)
Bassist bandleader Ben Allison has been compared to Radiohead, critical shorthand for "He is so good that by the time you realize Thom Yorke isn't going to show up, you won't care." The blow would be softened by the new CD's opener, "Respiration," which shares many of Radiohead's propulsive, bittersweet, orchestral charms. The more apt comparisons are to the Bad Plus' strategy of layering simplified melodies over complex rock rhythms or, more aptly, the Dave Douglas Quartet's canny and uncompromising combination of jazz and alternative rock.
In any case, "Little Things" is the model of modern cool, a series of polished, appealing compositions on a bed of melodic bass runs and syncopated slap-and-go drumming. A framework version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" satisfies the minimum requirement for affectionate/ironic covers but may be the least interesting thing on the CD. The title song a reference to sociobiologist/ant man E.O. Wilson and "Man Size Safe," a reference to one of Dick Cheney's office accoutrements, are more representative of Allison's smart, engaging style. This is music that deserves a wider audience, and you probably deserve it as well. Peter McElhinney
The Great White Jenkins, "Mussel Souls" (self-released)
Richmond's own "freak folk" collective, The Great White Jenkins, recall the dynamics of Akron/Family and the Dirty Projectors with their 22-minute EP "Mussel Souls" (a play on Muscle Shoals, the legendary sound affiliated with the studio in Alabama). The selections sweep from grand-scale to stripped-down, from psychedelic gospel ("Shadow") to Latin flavors ("Brother") and even Duke Ellington's jungle sound, with plunger-muted brass by The Hollywood Cemetery Horns on "Wind."
Throughout, The GWJ, led by Matthew White and Andrew Jenkins, embrace clever turns of phrase ("Dear, time's running out on your hourglass figure," from "Wind") and reveal a penchant for archaic Appalachian terminology ("Are you coming for to carry me home?"), all while honoring the city's attributes, from river to railroad. Although some uncomfortable moments occur, such as the Church Hill Chamber Singers' off-key vocal harmonies in "Railroad," those that don't resolve themselves stand out as further haunting, addictive ingredients on this successful disc. Sarah Moore