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Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (Shout Factory) With the great Leonard Cohen suddenly being all the rage these days (hit

JENNIFER WARNES
Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen
(Shout Factory)

With the great Leonard Cohen suddenly being all the rage these days (hit documentary; singers left and right covering “Hallelujah” and other songs), it's no wonder that this luminous 1987 album has been re-released in an expanded “20th-Anniversary Edition.” Honestly, I'd forgotten how good it is: This is really one of those albums that transcends the “tribute” label; rather, Warnes embodies the songs so well it feels like the perfect match between singer and songwriter. It should: She sang backup for Cohen in the early ‘70s and was very close to him for many years before recording this right at the peak of her pop success in the mid-’80s. The album features scads of well-known L.A. session cats of the era, including guitarist Robben Ford, keyboardist Russell Ferrante, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and keyboardist Smitty Smith, as well as such distinctive instrumentalists as Stevie Ray Vaughan (blistering on “First We Take Manhattan”), David Lindley and Little Feat's Bill Payne. Some of the keyboard textures sound a tad dated, but in general the arrangements are tasteful and elegant, the sound impeccable. Cohen duets with Warnes on “Joan of Arc,” and it's wonderful to hear that basso profundo. “Bird on the Wire” is the best-known song here, but it's been transformed into a sleek, driving tune quite different from Cohen's. “Ain't No Cure for Love” and the Cohen/Warnes tune “Song of Bernadette” are other standouts. There are four unreleased bonus tracks, two of them beautifully simple tunes where Warnes is accompanied only by guitarist/keyboardist/producer Mitch Watkins.

LISTEN: Must Play
Bird on a Wire

Original album produced by C. Roscoe Beck and Jennifer Warnes. Engineers: Bill Youdelman, Tim Boyle, Larry Brown, Csaba Petocz, Frank Wolf, Steven Strassman, Charlie Paakari, Paul Dieter, Paul Brown, George Massenburg (mixing), Henry Lewy (mixing). No studios listed. Remastering: Bernie Grundman.
Blair Jackson

NORTHERN STATE
Can I Keep This Pen?
(Ipecac)

Something about hot weather makes me extra-susceptible to mindless party music. It's like a vacation fling — sexy and fun, but destined to fade into memory. And just as the girls of summer — M.I.A., Rihanna, Lil' Mama — had started their slow creep out of my playlist rotation, I found Northern State, a trio of sassy rappers from Long Island who mix rap and alt-rock in a genre-bending style that's familiar, but elevated with irresistible hooks, smartly kitschy lyrics and a refreshing lack of pretension. I don't want to be the 500th person to compare them to the Beastie Boys and/or label them trailblazing white girls in hip hop, but hell yes, these ladies can rhyme. And with Beastie Boy Adrock and Wu-Tang's Chuck Brody at the board, the album's breezy old-school production takes you back to the days when rap equaled carefree summer fun.

LISTEN: Must Play
Mic Tester

Producers: Chuck Brody, Adrock. Engineers: Brody, Steve Halpern, Hesta Prynn, Spero. Studio: Fireplace, Sony Music Studios (NYC). Mastering: Dave Kutch/Sony.
Sarah Jones

CHUCK PROPHET
Soap and Water
(Yep Roc)

There's something very Velvet Under-ground about Soap and Water, the Yep Roc debut of rock 'n' roll singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet. Prophet half-talks/half-sings his way through a dozen beautifully crafted, bass-heavy originals. Various tracks are embellished by a children's choir, string and drum samples, and vocal effects, yet the basic tracks remain very raw and low-fi in a great way. Prophet has held a special place in my heart since his '80s days with Green on Red, but this is the first of his solo projects that I've felt has that band's combination of passion, punk-poetry and wit at its core. If you're with me so far, also check out the historical Green on Red: BBC Sessions, just released on Cooking Vinyl.

LISTEN: Must Play
Freckle

LISTEN: Must Play
Love Me

Producers: Chuck Prophet, Brad Jones. Engineers: JJ Wiesler, Jones. Studios: Play Record Play, Closer Studios (both in San Francisco), and Alex the Great (Nashville). Mastering: Jim DeMain/Yes Master (Nashville).
Barbara Schultz

JEAN LUC PONTY & HIS BAND
The Acatama Experience
(Koch)

Jean Luc Ponty has been the pre-eminent violinist in jazz and fusion so long it's easy to take him for granted. That's a mistake, because he continues to produce satisfying music that combines virtuosity with an underlying emotionalism that stems directly from his expressive playing. Ponty is also perfectly in sync with his band, which includes the remarkable keyboardist William Lecomte and the always fluid rhythm section of bassist Guy Nsangue Akwa on bass, drummer Thierry Arpino and percussionist Taffa Cisse; guests are guitarists Philip Catherine and Allan Holdsworth. Tracks range from spare, introspective ballads to breezy jazz numbers and darker fusion pieces. Ponty says this music was inspired by the band's world travels; you can definitely hear that in the polyglot of styles.

LISTEN: Must Play
Parisian Thoroughfare

Producer: Jean Luc Ponty. Engineers: Karim Sai, Ponty. Studios: Enigmatic, Studio Meudon, Studio Pigalle (all in France). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling (NYC).
Blair Jackson

UNKLE
War Stories
(Surrender All)

Electronica super-duo UNKLE (James Lavelle and Richard File) releases another fine example of computer-savvy production complemented with the warm tones commonly associated with ambient/techno. War Stories, a collection of desert songs out on Lavelle's new Surrender All label, is a departure from the group's previous two offerings. Instead of working “inside the box,” UNKLE played the entire album live, bringing in a top cast of characters to round out instrumental tracks and vocals. Jeordie White (aka, Twiggy Ramirez) lends bass to “Burn My Shadow”; Nada Surf's Matthew Caws adds his axe grinding to “Broken”; and co-producer Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age) comes out from behind the board, adding guitar/synth/bass/organ on many of the tracks. And, yes, that's The Cult's Ian Astbury singing on “Burn My Shadow.”

LISTEN: Must Play
Morning Rage

Producers: Chris Goss, UNKLE. Mixer: Chris Allen at J Sounds. Studios: Joshua Tree (L.A.), Surrender Sounds (London). Mastering: Howie Weinberg /Masterdisk.
Sarah Benzuly

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