Cool Spins

The Raconteurs Consolers of the Lonely(Third Man/Warner Bros.) It's hard to know what to say about this bizarre, eclectic and often amazing album. Stylistically,
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The Raconteurs
Consolers of the Lonely
(Third Man/Warner Bros.)

It's hard to know what to say about this bizarre, eclectic and often amazing album. Stylistically, it leaps from screamin' late-Led Zep-ish hard rock, to flowing acoustic pieces, to bits that sound like they came off some early prog-rock disc, to an epic, Dylanesque story-song. Some of this has a patchwork feel to it, as if leaders Jack White and Brendan Benson simply sat in a room and threw cool ideas at each other — “Check out this riff!” “Yeah, well, I've got this completely different-sounding chorus over here!” “Let's toss some Beatles piano on this, man!” — without much regard for cohesiveness or continuity. But that's also what makes it exciting: The sheer unpredictability from moment to moment, as songs change tempos, turn strange corners and seemingly disconnected codas magically appear. White and Benson have a similar high and thin vocal character, so even trading leads there is a continuity from track to track that helps pull the disparate parts together. And musically, there's tons going on. It feels as though every strange stompbox/fuzz tone/guitar and bass effect ever invented gets a workout here; again, it's part of the master plan to keep things both weird and interesting. I'm betting these guys dig the seriously rawkin' stuff most (like “Five on the Five”); they're cool, but not that original. My favorites are the piano ballad “You Don't Understand,” the Brit-pop “Old Enough,” the acoustic “These Stones Will Shout” and the aforementioned story-song, “Carolina Drama.” Special kudos to White for what is a truly an original mixing job.

PLAY: Must Play
Consoler of the Lonely

Producers: Jack White III and Brenden Benson. Engineer: Joe Chiccarelli. Mixing: White, Vance Powell. Studio: Blackbird (Nashville). Mastering: Vlado Meller/Universal (N.Y.).
Blair Jackson

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Allison Moorer
Mockingbird
(New Line)

Singer/songwriter Allison Moorer's latest is a covers collection — all written or co-written by female composers. The original versions of these songs span styles from blues to country to punk, but Moorer and producer/engineer/guitarist Buddy Miller have translated each song perfectly with complex, Americana-ish arrangements. Patti Smith's “Dancing Barefoot” still has its dark, pounding rhythm, but it rocks in a more country way. She also tackles iconic songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Both Sides Now,” each treated with quiet tenderness. Other standouts include a full, folky version of Julie Miller's “Orphan Train” and a sweet, spare acoustic interpretation of Jessi Coulter's “I'm Looking for Blue Eyes.” Moorer can really sing, by the way, so songs usually bloom for her, and the intimate atmosphere of Buddy Miller's living room studio only adds.

PLAY: Must Play
Orphan Train

Producer/mixer/mastering: Buddy Miller. Studio: Dogtown Studio (Nashville). Recording engineer: Mike Poole.
Barbara Schultz

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Dolly Parton
Backwoods Barbie
(Dolly)

Count me among those who loved Dolly Parton's turn to acoustic/old-time/bluegrass settings in recent years — they showcased the beauty and interpretive power of her voice. But I can't begrudge her return to more commercial sounds because she still does that damn well, too. And, under the tasteful dollop of pop gloss, there are often mandolins, fiddles, acoustic guitars and banjos peaking through. Her greatest strength as a writer is her ability to write personally but make it feel universal, and this latest batch of songs, as usual, veers from self-deprecating humor to deep soul-searching. “Better Get to Livin'” and the title track are two of her best recent songs, and her take on Fine Young Cannibals' “Drives Me Crazy” is surprisingly fresh. A fine album.

PLAY: Must Play
Better Get to Livin'

Producers: Kent Wells. Parton. Engineers: Patrick Murphy, Ben Schmitt, Kyle Dickinson. Mixer: Justin Niebank. Studios: Blackbird, Kent Wells Productions, Sound Kitchen, Emerald (all Nashville). Mastering: Jim Demain, Alex McCullough/Yes Master (Nashville).
Blair Jackson

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Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
Honoring the Fathers: Tribute to 1946 and 1947
(Skaggs Family)

When I interviewed Ricky Skaggs for the “Label-Studio Combo” feature (see page 70), he talked about the impact of Bill Monroe's death on his decision to re-focus his career on his bluegrass roots. Skaggs and band's spring release is the perfect tribute to Monroe's legacy, and it's a highly enjoyable listen, too. Featured are spirited, renditions of core Monroe and Monroe/Lester Flatt creations such as “Goin' Back to Old Kentucky,” “Little Cabin on the Hill,” “Bluegrass Breakdown” and others. Skaggs' revered mandolin playing is always impeccable, but he doesn't always get enough credit for his vocals. Honoring the Fathers reminds us where this wonderful singer's heart lies.

PLAY: Must Play
Bluegrass Breakdown

Producer: Ricky Skaggs. Engineer: Brent King. Studio: Skaggs Place Recording (Hendersonville, TN). Mastering: Andrew Mendelson/Georgetown Masters (Nashville).
Barbara Schultz

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Fayssoux
Early
(Red Beet)

If you were a fan of Emmylou Harris' remarkable 1970s albums, then you've heard what a beautiful voice Fayssoux has: As Fayssoux Starling (now McLean), she was a reliable presence singing alto harmony vocals on many a fine song. Now, Fayssoux's solo album successfully re-creates some of the approach and feeling of those classic Harris discs and announces its creator as a rich talent on her own. There's a pleasing mix of folky country tunes, a little honky-tonk, some uplifting gospel and plenty of gorgeous ballads. Also in that early Hot Band tradition, the arrangements here are all classy and impeccable; there's nary a wasted note. Harris sings harmony on three tunes, The Whites on some others, and pedal steel/dobro master Lloyd Green and mandolinist Ricky Skaggs add nice instrumental touches. A lovely piece of work!

PLAY: Must Play
Early

Producer: Peter Cooper. Engineer: Richard McLaurin. Studio: House of David (Nashville). Mastering: Jim Demain and Alex McCollough/Yes Master (Nashville).
Blair Jackson