Cool Spins

Richard JulianSlow New York Manhattan This isn't New York singer/songwriter Richard Julian's first album apparently, he's had a few out on indie labels

Richard Julian
Slow New York

This isn't New York singer/songwriter Richard Julian's first album — apparently, he's had a few out on indie labels — but it's the first I've heard by him, and I'm thrilled by the discovery! Listening to this album is like reading a really good book of short stories — each song sets up its own mood and creates its own world, musically and lyrically. There are many ruminations on the human heart, on big and little moments observed or experienced, and excursions through the songwriter's psyche that move from comic musings to dark realizations, hitting many points in between. Musically, Julian moves easily between moody folk musings and tunes that incorporate bits of blues and jazz. Comparisons are always odious, but in his poetic and wryly confessional style, I hear echoes of Loudon Wainwright III; but in terms of the overall effect of the album, it took me back to the brilliant first record by Steve Forbert. Working with an ever-shifting group of really superb musicians (especially bassists Tim Luntzel and Lee Alexander, keyboardist Dred Scott and slide guitarist Tony Scherr), Julian's own acoustic guitar work helps give the music its pulse, while his voice — warm but worldly, with a hint of rasp — conveys much without over-reaching. The project has been wonderfully recorded and mixed for an intimate, in-your-face sound; it feels like being in the same room as Julian and the musicians. And it turns out that's a very interesting and stimulating place to be.

Producer: Brad Jones (one song produced by Lee Alexander and Norah Jones). Engineers: Brad Jones, Matt Boynton and Juan Garcia. Recorded at The Magic Shop (New York City); mixed at Alex the Great (Nashville) by Brad Jones. Mastering: Gene Paul/DB Plus (New York City).
Blair Jackson

Railroad Earth
Sci Fidelity

The instrumentation is mostly that of a bluegrass band (plus drums), but Railroad Earth sounds like they've listened to as much Grateful Dead as Bill Monroe — no wonder they are the rising darlings of the jam-band scene. The sextet has been around just five years, but in that time, they have established themselves as a formidable live band, and this superb live two-CD set shows why: The group pens smart, memorable tunes; they display the sort of effortless virtuosity one expects from a modern acoustic band; but most of all, they jam with confidence and purpose — there's no aimless noodling here, but lots of unpredictable adventure. With seven of the 13 tracks clocking in at more than nine minutes, you know these guys are serious about pushing the envelope.

Producers: Railroad Earth. Recorded by Mike Partridge and Johnny Grubb. Mixed by Grubb, Todd Sheaffer and John Skehan at Chez Fur Studio. Frank Kevorkian/Avatar Studios.
Blair Jackson

Various Artists
Gospel Music

Is it really possible to capture the breadth and depth of gospel music in a single 18-song CD? Probably not, but this extraordinary disc comes close. It doesn't have a single weak moment, as it bops merrily through some of the greats of black gospel, old and new(ish). From the former come offerings by the Golden Jubilee Quartet, the Swan Silvertones, the Harmonizing Four and The Trumpeteers. The middle period finds Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers and Mahalia Jackson sounding so fine. And from the “modern” era, there are dependable names such as the Staple Singers, Rev. James Cleveland and Dorothy Love Coates. From intricate harmonies to full-on testifyin' shouts, this collection covers a lot of stylistic and emotional range. You'd have to be a zombie to not get a charge out of it, and even then, it might give you a pulse.

Executive producers: Lee Friedlander and Joel Dorn. Many different producers, engineers and studios, but none listed. Mastering: Gene Paul/DB Plus (New York City).
Blair Jackson

Herbie Hancock
Vector/Hancock Music

What do you get when you combine Herbie Hancock with a broad range of talent, including John Mayer, Annie Lennox, Paul Simon, Joss Stone, Carlos Santana, Damien Rice, Christina Aguilera; top-notch studio players from around the globe; great songs; and a great recordings? (Wonderful) Possibilities. The aptly titled CD is one of the latest efforts from Starbucks' Hear Music label with Hancock Music. Standout cuts include Aguilera's take on Leon Russell's “A Song for You,” Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan's “Don't Explain,” Annie Lennox's “Hush, Hush, Hush” and Mayer's “Stitched Up.” The only disappointments are an uninspired “Sister Moon” and a valiant but failed effort at making Stevie Wonder's “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” featuring Raul Midon, sound hip. Still, this collection is a must-have.

Producers: Hancock, Alan Mintz, Greg Philinganes, Bryce Goggins, Bob Brockman, Yaron Fuchs, Steve Jordan, Alan Alagia, Paul Simon. (For studios, go to
Kevin Becka

Clear Static
Clear Static
Maverick Records

It's time to bring out your black eyeliner from the '80s (but please, not the tight black-leather pants) and get glammed out with Clear Static's self-titled debut. Harking back to the era of excess, Clear Static brings The Cure's heyday back to life. From the teasing lyrics of “Make-Up Sex” to the synthed-out lines swirling around “Near Years 1984” and “97 Lies,” it's no wonder that the band landed the opening act for Duran Duran's 2005 tour — no joke. Full of spacious production thanks to producer/engineer Tommy Henriksen (Revis, Brooks Buford, Mighty Six Ninety), Clear Static gives a nod to its glam roots but also earns current rock cred with thundering drums, deep bass lines and irresistible vocal hooks. Just beware of the dance-rock bliss that may occur from excessive listening.

Producer/engineer: Tommy Henriksen. Mixing: Mike Shipley. Additional credits: Jeff Pilson, Tony Phillips, John Ewing Jr., Valente. Studios: Sound City and Pilsound (both in Van Nuys, Calif.), Cherokee Studios (West Hollywood), Scared Stone.
Sarah Benzuly