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Now Hear This

Reviews of new releases by Tristan Prettyman, Dr. Israel, Sonny Rollins, Fern Jones, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and David Gray.

Dr. Israel "Dreadtone International: Patterns of War" (ROIR records)

Brooklyn's Dr. Israel is back with another boombastic album of drum-and-bass reggae and world-music fusion. Known for his throw-everything-in-the-sink blend of dub, roots reggae, rock, trip-hop, R&B and jungle, Israel is getting better at juggling studio elements while managing to create one consistent sound out of many disparate parts.

On what may be his most accessible album to date, Israel melds his global-urban-conscious lyrics and chilled dub workouts with the smooth R&B vocal talents of female vocalists Lady K and Israeli-born chanteuse Chemda, whose honey-rich voices provide a thread between these atmospheric, cosmopolitan reggae tunes.

Overpowering bass lines, deep beats, and snippets of echoing piano and other judiciously placed samples fill the album, from the strict roots flavor of "Seinsemilla" to the rock-influenced "Interference" featuring Portland's electronic dub rebels Systemwide and the politically flavored "Tetze" ("get out" in Hebrew, or the artist's response to American foreign policy). Whether enjoying its intricacies or relaxing within the dark grooves, dub aficionados and fans of old-school and new-school reggae should enjoy this record. *** — Brent Baldwin

Sonny Rollins "Without a Song: The 9-11 Concert" (Milestone Records)

For a half-century, saxophonist Sonny Rollins has been a vital, constantly renewing player, the last of the postwar generation of jazz giants (which includes Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane). In concert he is still capable of amazingly imaginative and energetic performances, but by and large, for the past 20 years his recordings have been more often good than great. "Without a Song" is great. Recorded live in Boston in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, it captures Rollins in full impassioned flight. The saxophonist was in New York during the attacks, giving the intelligent intensity of his playing a very specific narrative context. The other players, long-established Rollins sidemen, are fine; it's a band not just a backdrop for the legendary leader. "Without a Song" is no replacement for seeing Rollins live, but it comes close enough to be one of the best jazz albums of the year. **** — Peter McElhinney

Fern Jones "The Glory Road" (Numero)

Not many country fans remember the name Fern Jones; unfortunately, she didn't have much of a career. The wife of a revival tent preacher, Jones spent much of the '30s and '40s playing the Pentecostal circuit, whooping it up about the dangers of earthly pleasures. After Johnny Cash covered her on his first Sun Records recording, Jones was asked to record her own album in 1959, which she did using a great backing band that included legends Hank Garland on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano (fresh off Elvis Presley sessions). The result is this spunky mix of '50s honky-tonk and gospel led by Jones' sassy crooning style that has drawn comparisons to "Patsy Cline on Jesus." While there is a similar vocal timbre, Jones is more juke-joint blues and not nearly as refined as Winchester's golden gal. Still, happy-go-lucky religious songs like "You Ain't Got Nuthin'" make this an enjoyable cult classic, a rollicking cousin of the Louvin Brothers "Satan Is Real" — with a hearty sounding frontwoman and top-notch session guys. **** — B.B.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club "Howl" (RCA)

Apparently, if you put "black" in your name, you'll eventually come around to cutting an album soaked in the deep Americana sounds of blues, gospel or country: The Black Crowes, The Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The first two were dabbling from the word go; B.R.M.C. waited until their third full-length to make the leap from churning fuzz-rock, heavy riffs and feedback to acoustic guitar, harmonica and autoharp. Partly it's because the Bay Area trio recorded "Howl" out of pocket, after relentless touring and creative differences caused a rift with previous label Virgin Records. So maybe it was time for a change. With "Howl," B.R.M.C. works over the waltz with a driving moodiness and distortion on several tracks and tinkers with the blues in the piano-driven lament of "Promise." The group draws comparisons to The Jesus and Mary Chain, but "Ain't No Easy Way" has a distinctive Black Rebel stamp as a foot-stomping, harmonica-driven take on escaping love that sounds like the soundtrack for a gunfight between tortured poets. ***1/2 — Brandon Reynolds

David Gray "Life in Slow Motion" (ATO Records)

In 1998, you could barely escape the ubiquitous, looped pitter-patter of "Babylon," a fluke in the otherwise low-key career of David Gray. His latest release abandons the autobiographical stance and involves storytelling from various, sometimes abstract, perspectives — and it works. Joining forces with producer Marius DeVries (Bjork, David Bowie), Gray creates a sound that is sensory and cinematic, laying out his vignettes in layered, sonic landscapes where cellos intermingle with keys and bits of reverb, while entire choruses fill out intimate melodies on other tracks. Gray's vocals remain top-notch, evoking Springsteen-like sincerity with a distinctive rise and fall a la Dave Matthews. Though beautiful, the latter half of the album verges on lullaby. A dab of "White Ladder" percussion would have been a wise inclusion instead of the "na na na nas" that end the last track. Regardless, the album stands out as one of the most well-crafted of the year. *** — H.L.

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