NEW YORK (Billboard) - Rounding out the deceptively powerful trilogy that's given us 2007's "Love/Hate" and last year's "Love vs Money," The-Dream sticks to his signature future-soul sound on "Love King," which the singer/songwriter/producer has called the final album he'll release as a solo artist. If that proves true, he's going out in style: Less sprawling but just as richly detailed as "Love vs Money," the 12-track set contains several of The-Dream's finest numbers yet, including "Make Up Bag," in which he advises deep-pocketed husbands and boyfriends on how to avoid the doghouse, and "Yamaha," a spirited piece of Prince worship clearly inspired by "Little Red Corvette." Alas, "Panties to the Side" is no less crude than its title suggests, though the easily offended can always skip ahead to "February Girl," six gorgeous minutes of sweet synth-soul nothings.
ALBUM: STONE TEMPLE PILOTS (Atlantic Records)
The Stone Temple Pilots' new self-titled album -- its sixth studio release and first since "Shangri-La Dee Da" in 2001 -- perfectly showcases the veteran rock act's bold musicianship and songwriting know-how. The 12-song set displays a marked maturity and strong sense of direction since the four-piece's re-formation after an approximately five-year hiatus. The songs "Take a Load Off" and "Hazy Daze" smack with hard-rock lickery, while "Cinnamon" shimmers with carefree '90s optimism. And there's a notably Beatles-influenced Britpop quality to tunes like "Hickory Dichotomy" and "Dare If You Dare." Bringing everything from Seattle grunge sounds on the opening track/first single, "Between the Lines," to homesick acoustic balladry on "Maver," the sundry set still boasts a strong sense of unity. Displaying impressive vocal polish from outspoken frontman Scott Weiland; blazing guitar solos over tight, crunch-laden instrumentation; and grungy takes on Lennon/McCartney melodicism, STP asserts its place among seminal hard-rock chameleons.
ALBUM: BON TEMPO (Concord Records)
Summer, soccer and Sergio Mendes. Whether or not Mendes planned for his newest album, "Bon Tempo" (Good Time), to come out on the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it's an ideal trifecta. The bandleader, known for his blend of Brazilian bossa nova, roots rhythms and pop, again proves to be a master of fusion, mixing sounds, languages and notable collaborators (including Milton Nascimento and Seu Jorge) as few can. Mendes reprises some of his best-known songs, like "Ye-Me-Le," and a reference to his personal anthem "Mas Que Nada" pops up in "Emorio," the invigorating opening track featuring singer Nayanna Holley and the freewheeling Carlinhos Brown. A new version of '70s hit "Pais Tropical" could return it to the European discos where it once ruled. Even when a weaker track -- "You and I" -- gets so fluffy it's about to float away, Mendes brings it back to street level with Brown's funky rap.
ALBUM: TO THE SEA (Brushfire Records)
The latest album from chronically laid-back surf-rocker Jack Johnson, "To the Sea," is so down-to-earth that it could only be recorded using 100 percent solar power. A natural progression from 2008 release "Sleep Through the Static," the new set features more electric guitars and a brighter, full-band sound while still bringing plenty of sing-along acoustic romanticism and breezy melodies. "No Good With Faces" epitomizes the downbeat beach balladry and straightforward melodic approach that best showcase Johnson's unaffected style. The mood picks up with the full-band jam "At or With Me," which offers a different brand of feel-good that conjures images of summer barbecues. The acoustic-driven "Turn Your Love" is another Johnson standby, sweetened with background "ooohs" and the soothing plink of a ukulele, while the title track takes a turn with keys and a bouncy bass groove, breaking into some surprisingly bluesy, Hendrix-inspired guitar licks.
ALBUM: TREATS (Mom + Pop Music/N.E.E.T. Recordings)
Make no mistake: Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells is loud, raucous and unapologetic. Members Alexis Krauss (vocals) and Derek Miller (guitarist/programer) prove it on debut album "Treats," from the hard-hitting drum machine and soaring guitar riff of opener "Tell 'Em" to the frantic, punk energy of "Straight A's." On the distortion-heavy "A/B Machines," Krauss' repeated vocal chant ("Got my A machines on the table/Got my B machines in the drawer") is no match for Miller's sweltering guitar, and "Crown on the Ground" is stomping noise-pop poised to define the band's sound. Elsewhere, songs like "Riot Rhythm" and the M.I.A.-flavored "Kids" (Sleigh Bells is signed to the artist's N.E.E.T. Recordings) suffocate the listener with hip-shaking beats and buzzing distortion. But the track "Rill Rill" leaves room to breathe -- Krauss' voice is unusually sweet over easygoing guitar and slow-jam snaps.
ALBUM: MY SOUL (Stax/Concord)
Leela James grabbed attention with her arresting but uneven 2005 debut, "A Change Is Gonna Come." On her 2009 covers album, "Let's Do It Again," her striking vocals -- her voice is a gritty, soulfully booming force of nature -- poured new feeling into R&B/funk songs originally recorded by others. But it still left you itching for James to sink her teeth into something of her own. She does that on "My Soul," the debut for her fitting new home, legendary soul label Stax. From her growling, rock-edged stance on opener "I Ain't New to This," James reclaims the hoopla that greeted her arrival. Conjuring soul sisters Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Mavis Staples and Millie Jackson, James puts her unique emotional stamp on the churchy "The Fact Is," the smoky groove "Party All Night" and the emphatic "Tell Me You Love Me." Not every song is a home run, but this album shows James is back on the right track.
ALBUM: SKELETONS (Wind-up Records)
After the 2007 death of Hawthorne Heights guitarist/vocalist Casey Calvert, the post-hardcore act took a more mainstream direction, applying poppier melodies and scream-free vocals to its 2008 album, "Fragile Future." But after a lengthy legal battle with Victory Records and subsequently signing to Wind-up, the band returns to its harder roots on "Skeletons." Throughout the set, lead guitarist Micah Carli lends death growls to support the emotional lyrics of vocalist JT Woodruff. Over heavily distorted guitars on the track "End of the Underground," Carli's roar supplements Woodruff's plea of "Please know that you're not alone." But the mood settles with "Gravestones," where screams are replaced with the heavy strumming of an acoustic guitar. And opening cut "Bring You Back" uses a familiar touch of pop punk with interwoven vocal melodies. Hawthorne Heights' rediscovery of its roots may be what longtime fans have been yearning for, and what the band needs to recover from personal struggles.
ALBUM: ROKSTARR (Mercury Records)
On his second album, "Rokstarr," British pop-soul artist Taio Cruz croons about the highs and lows of love over a wide variety of electronic-influenced beats. Cruz's vocal delivery is most impressive on the single "Dirty Picture" (featuring Ke$ha and Fabolous), where over a synth-heavy backbeat he justifies his need for raunchy photos from his significant other. Other electronic subgenres on the set include house music, in the track "Come On Girl" (featuring Luciana), which finds Cruz singing over a spastic synthesizer and '80s-sounding keyboard. But fear not, techno haters: Low-key ballads "I Can Be" and slow jam "I'll Never Love Again" showcase the artist's more emotional side. And Cruz is most ecstatic on the dance track "Higher," which relies only on a simple bass riff, as he belts, "This groove has got me way over the sun."
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