KINGS OF LEON
Aha Shake Hearbreak (RCA)
Already enormously popular in Britain, the Nashville-based Kings of Leon — brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Hallowell, and their first cousin Matthew — are on the verge in America. They play a raw, stripped-down rock 'n' roll (and the occasional odd ballad) that's loaded with familiar riffs and progressions, but are put together in interesting ways. Lead singer Caleb is one strange cat — mostly incomprehensible, sometimes downright annoying — but powerful and different: gruff one moment, sensitive the next and actually pulling off a yodel of sorts at one point. I love the way this album is recorded: The instruments are captured relatively dry for a powerful in-your-face sound that works as a nice counterpoint to Caleb's sometimes cryptic ravings. A strange, but compelling slice of rock 'n' roll high and low life.
Producers: Ethan Johns and Angelo. Tracking engineer: Jacquire King. Mixed by King and Johns. Studio: Three Crows. Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.
— Blair Jackson
The Forgotten Arm (SuperEgo Records)
Instead of assembling a dozen literate but unrelated songs onto her exceptional fifth album, beloved artist/songwriter/D.I.Y. queen Aimee Mann weaves all of them together, telling the love story of Southern girl Caroline and Vietnam vet/boxer/addict John. Despite its specific characters, when Mann sings “Maybe there's something wrong with me” on “King of the Jailhouse,” or pleas “I Can't Help You Anymore,” anyone who has suffered through a traumatic, dramatic relationship (aka mostly everyone?) can find at least one melodic nugget to relate to. Mann's distinctive vocals merge with a mix of piano-driven pop and '70s countrypolitan, complete with sinewy guitar solos. Recorded in only five days, The Forgotten Arm is also one of Mann's strongest.
Producer: Joe Henry. Engineer: Ryan Freeland. Studios: Sunset Sound, Sound Factory, Stampede Origin. Mastering: Gavin Lurssen, Mastering Lab.
— Heather Johnson
A Reality Tour (Columbia Music Video)
I picked up this DVD at Tower Records a while back for just $9.99 — what a bargain! Culled from a November 2003 show in Dublin, the nearly two-and-a-half-hour concert features 30 songs, including many of his hits — “Rebel Rebel,” “Fame,” “Changes,” “Heroes,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Young Americans” — plus a few more obscure older numbers and a couple of tunes he's associated with but hasn't played much himself: “All the Young Dudes” and “Under Pressure.” Equally impressive, though, is the plethora of more recent, less well-known songs that Bowie and his fantastic band (Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, et al) invest with the same kind of imagination and enthusiasm as the classic tunes. The sound mix is superb; however, a lot of the video editing is more frantic than I like.
Stereo and 5.1 mixer: Tony Visconti. Pro Tools engineer: Mario McNulty. Creative director: Marcus Viner. Show producer: Philippa Pettett.
— Blair Jackson
ELI YOUNG BAND
Level (Carnival Recording Company)
In just five years, the Eli Young Band catapulted themselves from playing the college club circuit to 6,000-seaters as openers for the likes of Jack Ingram, Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed. Now, they've finally released their debut album, Level, and it's filled with that “the road is home, the tour bus is my bed” feeling. In fact, Level seems to be an attempt to recapture the band's dynamic stage presence — it's easy to imagine the crowd swaying back and forth on “Highways and Broken Hearts,” going nuts on the raucously fun show-opener “Small Town Kid” and holding lighters in the air for the romantic lament “That's the Way.” My only wish is that vocalist Mike Eli would just belt it out once in a while; this seems more of a safe outing for him. Still, the album is a rollickin' good time.
Producers: Erik Herbst, J.J. Lester (four songs). Recorded and mixed by Herbst. Studio: Panhandle House (Denton, Texas). Mastering: Jim Demain at Yes Master (Nashville) and Rob Wexler at WexTrax Mastering (McKinney, Texas).
— Sarah Benzuly
Think of Me (Telarc Blues)
Along with B.B. King and Buddy Guy, Little Milton (Campbell) is one of the few remaining links with the blues of the '50s and '60s. The Mississippi-born singer/guitarist has worked steadily for more than 50 years, and it's easy to see why: He has a rich, distinctive voice, a fluid guitar style and is comfortable singing classic and modern blues, R&B and even dipping into soulful rock and pop. His first disc for Telarc Blues is a solid work from beginning to end. Working in front of a top-notch band (some of whom helped co-write 11 of the 12 songs), Milton really stretches himself here, going from sultry Stax-style R&B to gospel-flavored blues and even a couple of songs that flirt with modern rock. He truly seems to be getting better with age.
Producers: Jon Tiven and Randy Labbe. Tracking engineers: Tiven, Earl Drake. Additional recording by Danny Ramsey, Paul Gannon, Jack Murray. Mixing engineer/mastering: Lincoln Clapp. Studios: Hormone (Nashville), Little Hollywood (Nashville), Big Ears (Nashville), Big Sound (Portland, Maine).
— Blair Jackson
NIC ARMSTRONG & THE THIEVES
The Greatest White Liar (New West Records)
Cut straight from the stylistic cloth of the '60s and obviously emulating The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, this debut disc full of guitar- and vocal-driven tracks will appeal to lovers of retro rock, but those looking for a modern spin on the era, or an original voice, may feel only superficially sated. The band, comprising vocalist Nic Armstrong, drummer Jonny Aitken and bassist Shane Lawlor, has the talent to replicate the sound of their influences, but the thing that's missing most is this band's own distinctive voice. Still, songs like “I Can't Stand It” and “I Want to Be Your Driver” (a Chuck Berry cover) are delivered with the kind of conviction that hints at real soul and demonstrates their potentially creative personality.
Produced and engineered by Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios, an all-analog facility in London, also known for The White Stripes sessions for 2003's Elephant.
— Breean Lingle