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Alec Ounsworth

Mo Beauty

Anti- Records

Buy if you like: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Rufus Wainwright

Alec Ounsworth slipped into the studio during a brief furlough from his main job fronting Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Mo Beauty is the predictably unpredictable result. He and producer Steve Berlin from Los Lobos have taken an inspired excursion to Piety Street in New Orleans to cast their musical net, snaring the very best the Crescent City offers. With Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore both on board — along with keyboardist Robert Walter, guitarist Matt Sutton and most of the trombones from Bonerama — musical fireworks were pretty much unavoidable. Arrangements on songs like "Bones in the Grave" evoke the skewered skronk of Captain Beefheart, while Ounsworth's turmoiled voice can resemble a cross between Arcade Fire and mature gerbils on ecstasy. In other words, it's a striking debut, one that suggests Ounsworth's future in music is essentially assured. — Bill Bentley


Robert Earl Keen

The Rose Hotel

Lost Highway

Buy if you like: Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt

Like his pal Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen constantly finds new ways of expressing pathos and humor through the lives of drifters, dreamers and lovers. He sings what he knows, but he's a story weaver, too, a teller of tales, some tall, some true. Keen is twangier than Lovett, and also rocks harder, notably on "Throwin' Rocks," with wailin' blues vocals by Deani Flemmings, and on the Billy Bob Thornton-assisted "10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar." "The Man Behind the Drums" is an ode to Levon Helms that features impressive keyboard backing by Bukka Allen (son of Terry). Keen even delivers a reggae groove on the appropriately lazy "Something I Do," and you've gotta love lyrics like "There's wankers and bankers in hell." All that, plus the wry hilarity of the country-rooted "Wireless in Heaven," complete with fiddle, banjo, Dobro and gi-tar breakdown, makes The Rose Hotel a perfect destination. — Lynne Margolis


Caroline Herring

Golden Apples of the Sun

Signature Sounds / Release date: Nov. 10

Buy if you like: Norah Jones, Nanci Griffith

There's no greater challenge to an artist than making a successful record that is essentially solo acoustic. In this stripped down format, singer-songwriters are in their most exposed form, with no drums or programmed grooves, no additional guitars, bass, keyboards or other instruments to reinforce, embellish or sweeten the root melody. Caroline Herring rises to that challenge on Golden Apples of the Sun, delivering 12 mostly solo acoustic gems built around her strong, and sometimes exceptional, vocal melodies. The album quietly soars, where similar endeavors sometimes snore. Even so, some of the tracks could have benefited from more expansive instrumentation (including "A Little Bit of Mercy," which, oddly enough, does feature some percussion and electric guitar). Still, Herring deserves credit for being brave enough to trust that her songs would stand up in such a simple setting. – Alan Sculley

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