Clifford "T.I." Harris welcomed mass success like a champ when his fourth album, King - more a lucky situation he was plugged into than any kind of artistic throne-grab - hit No. 1 in 2006. You could check its highlights off like a hip-hop scorecard: grand entrance ("King Back"), anthem ("What You Know"), beef ("I'm Talking to You"), for-the-ladies ("Why You Wanna"), for-the-car ("Top Back") and respect-the-elders (UGK duet "Front Back"). Even the nondescript appropriation "king" in the title has a rap-star-by-the-numbers charm to it. Then the regal one struck out on last year's T.I. vs. T.I.P., a show of Harris' limitations that revealed the difference between a real rap star and one for rent. Overblown concepts and duality can't be approximated by the sane. Plus, it didn't have any songs with the word "back" in the title. Worse yet, the hooks didn't stick (all together now: "Big shit poppin' ... and little shit stoppin" - oof). In a world that contains Lil' Wayne, the Game and too many other well-reported crazies, it looks like T.I. is stuck playing the straight man forever.
Thankfully, Paper Trail is where he says "fair enough." The only point here is the hooks, which are plentiful and bear repeating - from the summer prize "Whatever You Like," a proud entry in the great sung-rap canon established by Wyclef and Nelly, to "Livin' Your Life," a Rihanna duet that samples, and reconstitutes, the "Numa Numa" song of all things, into a Just Blaze banger. "King Back" fans will find this overly lightweight, with its abundance of R&B and danceable synth tracks (The-Dream's completely in his cyber-fluffy comfort zone on "Like I Do"), and T.I. is easily outrapped on the roughest thing here, Kanye's M.I.A.-sampling "Swagger Like Us," which features Jay-Z and Weezy himself extrapolating over rough 8-bit sounds. But this is a consistent and enjoyable entry in a thin catalog from a rapper no one had reason to expect had peaks left to scale, much less from someone about to go to prison. - Dan Weiss
Kings of Leon Only by the Night (RCA Records)
Dirty, gritty songs about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll fill this band's library. We're not talking about the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream or any classic-rock gods. We're talking about Tennessee's Kings of Leon, today's answer to everything rock 'n' roll was in the past. For those not fortunate enough to be alive when Keith Moon was in his prime or when Mick Jagger had real skin on his bones, Kings of Leon are one of the best things we've got. On their fourth album, the three Followill brothers (and their cousin Matthew, also a Followill) have created yet another solid album of grimy Southern rock. The huge sound contained in the 43 minutes of Only by the Night should translate well to huge crowds, but the vicious riffage and soulful emotion are just as exhilarating in recorded form. A song about a Spanish teenage girl, "17," features a mix of church bells, dusty drums and languid guitar. Other highlights include "Sex on Fire," a fast-paced song about (what else?) hot sex, and "Closer," an ominous rocker with piled-on reverb and lines like "She took my heart/I think she took my soul." - Danielle Sills
Dungen 4 (Kemado)
You wouldn't think the perpetually laid-back folks of Sweden would need to chill out once in a while. But on their fourth album, Stockholm-based psychedelic sound sculptors Dungen lower the volume, slow down the tempos and take it easy. Frontman Gustav Ejstes (who practically does everything on 4) creates a panoramic view of his state of mind with guitars, drums, strings, pianos and flutes. It's a little bit hazy, sorta freewheeling and a whole lotta hassle-free (it's also in Swedish, so Ejstes could be singing about foot blisters, for all we know). At times, 4 is a little too relaxed, settling into sleep-inducing grooves - as on the plodding yawn-fest "M"ler"s Finest" - that can barely be bothered with pesky incidentals like melody. So when a fret-wrecking guitar solo announces the balls-out "Samtidigt 1," you begin to wonder if the song got lost on its way to another, more uptight album. - Michael Gallucci
Patricia Barber The Cole Porter Mix (Blue Note)
It seems that Chicago-based vocalist and pianist Patricia Barber didn't want to simply record a collection of standards for her latest album, choosing instead to fit the classic songs of Cole Porter into a modern jazz format without losing the music's feel - a difficult task, since many of these songs have pretty much been ingrained in listeners' minds through countless recordings by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald (not to mention the soundtrack to the 2004 biopic De-Lovely, which also gave the tunes a more contemporary edge). She also added two originals done in Porter's style, using his simple but effective delivery to convey the message at hand.
Barber catches your attention almost immediately on "Easy to Love," played in a subtle bossa arrangement, giving listeners the chance to focus on the lyrics' romanticism without too many distractions. "Just One of Those Things" kicks off with Barber singing along to Michael Arnopol's uptempo walking bass line, and they are joined by the other musicians within a few bars, taking us into a post-bop mode that is enhanced by a goose bump-inducing solo by tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. Another highlight is "In The Still of the Night," which is played, samba-esque, with plenty of improvisational spots for Barber, Potter and guitarist Heal Alger. Barber has taken a huge gamble with these timeless standards, which might just bring a new audience to works such as these. Ella (one of Porter's best interpreters) would have been proud. - Ernest Barteldes
Peter Bjorn and John Seaside Rock (Almost Gold/Star Time International)
Crow all they want, but critics who extolled Peter Bjorn and John's big hit, "Young Folks," don't know shit about kids if they think high-schoolers were waiting for these blogger-approved Swedes' "perfect pop" to roll down the Grey's Anatomy hatch. Imogen Heap's word-of-mouth was more mobilized. So what PB&J ultimately left us in 2006, when the hype settled, was a pretty good album of low-key, Euro-style indie-pop that peaked tremendously in the middle (that's "Paris 2004," "Let's Call It Off" and "The Chills," not "Young Folks").
By that standard, this all-instrumental, limited-edition affair isn't as much of a surprise (or a worry) as you'd think. Like the first record (actually their third, but be honest, did you seek out the two Europe-onlys?), the selling pleasures are both adult and minor ... and without a single whistled note. Sure, they take the concept too seriously, what with ocean and seagulls swathing all 40 vocal-free minutes. But the music is assertive as ever; these aren't doo-doo tunes dusted off from an aborted film score. "School of Kraut" rocks louder and faster than anything on Writer's Block, recalling Broken Social Scene's hammier bombasts. And the delicate "Barcelona" and "Next Stop Bjursele" are as tuneful as anything these melodic studio rats have ever done. - Weiss
Thievery Corporation Radio Retaliation (ESL)
Thievery Corporation's East-meets-Middle-East-meets-West downtempo mentality was quite successful earlier in the decade, giving wine bars a soundtrack for a healthy part of any given evening. But like a lot of electronica groups, Thievery Corporation has found itself in a rather precarious situation - trying to remain fresh but doing so by simply tweaking a lot of well-honed sounds. On its past few albums, "innovation" has meant bringing in guest singers - which it tries again here. For a moment, "Radio Retaliation" aims for a more "political" association, in both sound and chosen vocalists. There's a heavy presence of Afro beat in the early cuts, which breathes new life into the work. "Radio Retaliation" and "Vampires" both sound like modern-day Fela Kuti (surprise: Femi Kuti guests spots on "Vampires"), with very little lush downtempo in the mix. Horns play a much more dominant role in the first half of the record, but after the funky Spanish tune "El Pueblo Unido," the record shifts back to the band's old, velvet-rope ways. It's not bad; uptempo "(The Forgotten People)" shifts the mood into darker territory, and "Le Femme Parallel" continues that sexy sultry bossa nova vibe Thievery Corporation does so well. While none of the album screams "rally cries," there's just enough diversity here to consider the D.C. duo is still treading water. - Michael D. Ayers
Bio Ritmo Bi—nico (Locutor)
This nine-piece out of Richmond, Virginia, takes standard salsa grooves and slathers all kinds of retro-futuristic blips, bloops and wacky drum and keyboard textures over them. The whole thing is a joyous, irreverent dance party that could have rocked the house in the '70s, if the '70s were transported into the 25th century. The horns, percussion and keys are rock solid - de rigueur for any respectable salsa band, but the overall mood is loose-limbed and cheeky. "Bionic Boogalo," the CD's signature track, quotes the theme from the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, complete with its sh-t-t-t-t-t-t sound effects and electronic swooshes and whoops. "A La Cha" opens with the quintessential '70s sound effect, the wah-wah. It moves into a Middle Eastern belly dance on keys, percussion and hand-claps in the middle, but snaps back into salsa before the end. Bio Ritmo gets earthy and organic on "Dime Vida," with mbiras and soft shakers, but this one cooks on as high a heat as anything else on Bi—nico. If I had to place a bet on who's having the most fun here, my money would be on keyboardist Marlysse Rose Simmons. The classically trained pianist plays like a kid in a space-age toy shop, throwing around funky tone colors like she was in some giant sonic ball pit. The goofy, faux-schmaltzy hidden track sounds like it was recorded at the end of a long, long session. It's further proof this is a band that knows how to have a good time, no matter what the circumstances. - Peggy Latkovich