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The Plain White T's, Jenny Lewis, And More Get Graded

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Raphael Saadiq

The Way I See It

(Columbia) From its 1960s-style cover art to the retro-soul grooves found inside, former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman Raphael Saadiq's third solo album lovingly replicates an old-school R&B experience. Channeling the spirits and voices of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and various Temptations, Saadiq's frame of reference on The Way I See It is Motown, but he ventures outside of Detroit too, perfectly nailing the sweet harmonies and warm instrumental flourishes of the Stylistics, the Chi-Lites and other vocal groups of the era. Only a Jay-Z cameo on a throwaway bonus track and Joss Stone's over-singing on the otherwise understated "Just One Kiss" tip off listeners that the record was made in 2008, not 1968. Highlights like "Sure Hope You Mean It" and "Staying in Love" even capture the hand-holding, simmering sensuality of a time when a walk outside was considered a hot date. - Michael Gallucci

The Plain White T's

Big Bad World


Since the runaway success of 2006's coffeeshop-acoustic single "Hey There Delilah," making the case that Plain White T's frontman Tom Higgenson is anything other than a sensitive, nice-dude wuss can be a tough sell. After all, pop-punk lite tunes about mooning over chick crushes are his specialty; check the rest of 2006's Every Second Counts for the softee-imitation Green Day/Weezer/Jimmy Eat Word evidence. "Delilah" was a lucky aberration for the Plain White T's, a fluke that finally made the public-at-large pay attention - a lot like Sugar Ray's 1997 smash "Fly" in context of that band's early gross-out metal.

So Big Bad World, naturally, panders predictably, while positing Higgenson as a fame-drunk cad who's fending off that dastardly playa impulse when he isn't dispensing romantic or motivational boilerplate. "Someday we'll all reach higher/Someday we won't be so tired/Someday we won't say never," he generalizes emptily on "Someday," which purports, in its polyharmonic soar and dewy, mid-tempo sweep, to be an "Imagine"/"I'd Like to Teach the World" admixture for 2008. Worse still, the band transmorphs into a latter-day Monkees for "That Girl," pissing ecstatic onamonapia all over sunny-side chordage in service of a kicky li'l number about love - and orgasms - at first sight. While the cloyingly chipper title track encourages us to keep plugging away at overcoming our chronic mistakes, Maroon 5 rip-off "Natural Disaster" waxes mindless-tryst celebratory. Then Higgenson is genuflecting waist-deep in orchestra-pit musical-theatre cheese, begging God to forgive him for a "Serious Mistake," a weak, insincere stab at a template Say Anything would've nailed with verve, sass and wit to spare. Suddenly, "Delilah" no longer seems so intolerably banal. - Ray Cummings


I Know What You're Up To


This L.A. singer-songwriter, who was born Gus Seyffert, turns off the lights, unplugs the amp and settles in for some late-night confessionals on his debut album, a delicate, finger-picking set of post-millennium folk-pop. Like most of his stripped-down contemporaries, Seyffert looks back for inspiration - particularly to the Beatles, whose late-career granola-munching days are echoed on "Dust Bunnies" and "Wish I Was Yours." He even covers John Lennon's "I'm Losing You," but he's more Paul McCartney (check out "Frankenstein," a lazy-day stroll in the park that sounds like one of Macca's whistling ditties that comes complete with ... whistling!). I Know What You're Up To doesn't add up to much more than a young troubadour asking for your trust, with plaintive sighs and acoustic guitars as collateral. - Gallucci

Jenny Lewis

Acid Tongue

(Warner Bros.)

This is where Jenny Lewis exploits her fame. The critically beloved singer-guitarist from Rilo Kiley isn't as famous as Death Cab for Cutie or Conor Oberst - this won't debut at No. 1 - but chances are you've at least dormed with someone who thinks she's hot. If this sounds a bit exploitative, the formerly awkward alt-country singer of six years ago is damn well ready for it. The mountains of blow (and blowing) she detailed on last year's Rilo Kiley CD, the excellent Under the Blacklight, made for a great L.A. album, her greatest for the time being, though her bests never stay that way for too long.

She continues to write great songs and shapeshift their environments, and makes them sound so damn simple she practically writes her own reviews. Two of the rockers on Acid Tongue rank among her best ever, the surfy rave-up "See Fernando," and the sly, pummeling Elvis Costello duet "Carpetbaggers." And her first foray into nine-minute ambition couldn't be more fleet: "The Next Messiah" comprises three blues songs in the "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" mold, all of them a riot. The production is both thudding and light, with an analog spareness and a live feel almost antithetical to its practiced perfection. The spontaneity trumps not just her dozy, overly adorned Rabbit Furcoat solo debut but also most of Rilo Kiley's catalogue. The ballads overflow, but most of them ("Black Sand," "Badman's World," the soulful title tune) make the most of her country-soul costuming, stretching her voice and character ("World" snatches "I've been a bad girl" from Fiona Apple) and steering her second solo effort toward Tarantino-soundtrack vaudeville bliss. - Dan Weiss

Brightblack Morning Light

Motion to Rejoin


If indie kids were lounge lizards, they'd be spending every Saturday night at some basement bar crammed into red, vinyl booths listening to Brightblack Morning Light groove through a smoky haze. Motion to Rejoin, the band's second album for Matador, mixes the scotch-on-the-rocks warmth and seduction of a jazz club with the laid-back, rural delivery of former mentor Will Oldham. Rhodes chords sooth like comfort food, while guitar and percussion gently throb in the background, and soulful male/female vocals drift over top like gentle, wavering smoke. It's a strangely familiar sound, but not one you will find many other groups on is label exploring. Each song on Motion to Rejoin is a slow and deliberate movement. What's interesting is that despite long running times and songwriting structures that shrug off pop conventions, these songs never grow irritating. This is music meant for strong drinks and comfortable chairs, the kind of moment-making tunes that turn a dull winter evening into a fulfilling listening experience. Brightblack Morning Light is like a good hypnotist: It has the ability to lull you into a comfortable state, but above everything else, it's here to entertain. - Matt Whelihan

Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Rattlin' Bones

(Sugar Hill) The title track that opens this collaboration between the Australian husband-and-wife duo is quite striking. With its reference to "dragging a bag of stone," "Rattlin' Bones" sounds like a county riposte to Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." In fact, Chambers and Nicholson often come off as a rootsy Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, trading vocals on "Monkey on a Wire" and "Jackson Hole." But more often, they're just interested in writing beautiful ballads. The gentle "Once in a While" sounds like something Lyle Lovett might have written, and the bittersweet "Sweetest Waste of Time" benefits from a nice bit of lap steel. With the exception of its moody title track, Rattlin' Bones isn't going to knock your proverbial socks off. But it has a naturalness that ensures it gets better with each listen. Stick around for the hidden track, a shout-out of sorts to Uncle Tupelo. - Jeff Niesel

Portugal. The Man

Censored Colors

(Equal Vision) No recording could ever possibly come close to capturing the raw energy and force behind Portugal. The Man's live shows. Last year's Church Mouth attempted that feat, offering a snapshot of the band's dynamic, gospel-tinged rock, but always presenting a veritably different band than the one that appeared onstage with almost a dozen members every night. Censored Colors, the band's third full-length album, seems to relinquish its desire to mirror the live performance. Instead, the record reflects the band's nuanced songwriting skills, revealing sonic intricacies rather than impassioned force. Songs like the comparatively delicate "Salt," hushed, largely acoustic "In and Out and In and Out" and the TV on the Radio-esque "Hard Times" become about the layers in the music, not about what the layers themselves can create when piled on one another live. It's a collection of tracks that displays skill and innovation, but every time a song ends, you still think, "I can't wait to see that live." Some bands just can't be fenced in by a studio. - Emily Zemler

Various Artists

Halloween A Go-Go

(Wicked Cool Records) Given its title, it's easy to assume that this compilation, put together by the E Street Band's Little Steven, is going to express what this dreary holiday is about. But once you listen to Halloween A Go-Go, you'll realize this assumption is very wrong. It seems like almost every song, except Howlin' Wolf's "Howlin for My Darling" and John "The Cool Ghoul" Zacherle's "Dinner with Drac," was chosen merely because of the song titles, not the content. Roky Erickson and the Aliens' song "I Walked With a Zombie" isn't scary at all. It might as well be called "I Walked With Gumby." Four of the songs on this album - including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "Restless Nights" -deal with dreams, which may be scary if Freddy Krueger were involved. In the end, there's no fear in these songs, and that's downright scary for a Halloween compilation. - Erika Schramm

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