Sound advice

May 05, 2011
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Ray Davies

See My Friends

Decca

Buy if you like: The Kinks, Mumford & Sons

Jon Bon Jovi singing "Celluloid Heroes" may not be the worst sacrilege in the history of pop cover songs (Michael Bolton's "Dock of the Bay" has that covered), but it wasn't for want of trying. While guitarist Richie Sambora acquits himself nicely, Bon Jovi treats this most elegiac of pop masterpieces with the subtle grace of Meat Loaf stampeding the steam tables at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Shame, really, since the Kinks leader comes up with some real gems on See My Friends, which finds him revisiting his songwriting catalog with the help of Bruce Springsteen, Mumford & Sons, Black Francis, Paloma Faith and others. Alex Chilton's take on "Till the End of the Day," recorded eight months before the singer's untimely death, may be his best vocal performance since the Big Star era. It's the standout track on a project that, by "duets album" standards, has mercifully few atrocities. — Bill Forman

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Steve Earle

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

New West

Buy if you like: John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg

Steve Earle's last three studio albums won Grammys, which means his new one likely won't. Yet it's much stronger than his last winner, the covers disc Townes. This one, named for Hank Williams' last single, contains finely honed reflections on mortality and the afterlife, from gently philosophical ballads to back-porch stompers straight from Ireland and Appalachia. "The Gulf of Mexico" could be an old Irish sea chantey, except it's about a year-old disaster. "Molly-O" has the minor-key modality of a Civil War tune, though it's about a bandit stealing and killing for his beloved. "Every Part of Me" is a moving song of love made more eloquent by its simplicity. Earle's ability to convey such appreciation for merely surviving long enough to earn the love of his life — and his mastery at delivering sociopolitical commentary in the stories of vividly drawn characters — are worth accolades, statues or not. — Lynne Margolis

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Plan B

The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Atlantic

Buy if you like: The Temptations, Raphael Saadiq

Plan B, aka part-time actor Benjamin Paul Ballance-Drew, has become Britain's latest soul sensation by making the jump from rapping to singing in a classic Motown style. Here, he gets more than a little ambitious, creating a "concept" album that tells the harrowing story of a rapper falsely accused of rape by a fan. The songs, which unfold in courtrooms and jail cells, feel like Plan B was planning to make a movie, which in fact he is. Getting the whole story requires listeners to pay close attention to the entire album, definitely a novel concept in the short-attention-span world of contemporary music. But none of that is required to appreciate Plan B's surprisingly considerable singing chops. His work here brings to mind Smokey Robinson and early-solo-period Michael Jackson, which is as good as pop-soul singing gets. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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