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Secret Machines, Paul Rodgers, Illa J, And Moore Get Graded 

Queen & Paul Rodgers

The Cosmos Rocks

(Hollywood) The superstar collaboration has long been a rock staple, with varying degrees of success. When the combinations work, egos are checked at the door and the participants' talents click to create a new entity. In less-than-successful circumstances, marquee personalities either clash like plaids and polka dots or cancel each other out of the musical equation. In the case of Queen and Paul Rodgers, the pairing seems odd in theory. Rodgers represents the translation of blues into the boogie-rock idiom during the '60s/'70s, while Queen blazed new trails in electric rock vaudeville, steered by the late Freddie Mercury's flamboyant excess. The first Queen/Rodgers summit, the live Return of the Champions, was a quirky mish-mash of the principals' histories, with Rodgers' powerfully earthy vocals providing an interesting but completely different take on Mercury's soaring Queen songs, and Queen offering similarly reconfigured visions of Rodgers' Bad Company and Free catalog.

The combination finds a little better footing on their first studio collaboration, The Cosmos Rocks. Presenting new material conceived by Rodgers, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (bassist John Deacon retired from music a decade ago), Cosmos benefits from the lack of familiar tunes from their collective histories. If there's a downside to Cosmos, it's the album's relatively subdued atmosphere, where the group's rock balladry allows Rodgers to play his contemporary bluesman role to a tee, prohibiting Queen from bursting into a stratsophere it dominated 30-plus years ago (although "Warboys" and "Cosmos Rockin'" come close). Cosmos is not the blockbuster this lineup just may be capable of, but it is an enjoyable listen nonetheless. - Brian Baker

Illa J

Yancey Boys

(Delicious Vinyl)

It's been almost three years since hip-hop lost J. Dilla to complications from lupus. The Detroit producer/rapper touched many with his unrelenting passion for making music; it's widely known that he continued to make beats even when he was in the hospital. Dilla's music lives on through many of the artists he influenced, especially his younger brother, John "Illa J" Yancey. On Yancey Boys, Illa spits rhymes over a slew of Dilla beats that Delicious Vinyl had been storing in its vaults. It's a fitting tribute to Jay Dee - a creative way to pay homage without crossing into maudlin territory.

"We Here," the album's lead single, is a feel-good head-nodder that showcases Illa's charismatic delivery. Like his brother, the kid's a natural, with a serious knack for the art of perfect timing. Illa teams up with Guilty Simpson on "RU Listening," a thumping tune that honors the Motor City. The unearthed beats are on par with classic Dilla fare and at their best when they're at their most soulful, like on the Roots-esque "Showtime." It also echoes the spirit of the Pharcyde - a group Dilla famously produced for - on the jazzy "DFTF." Illa keeps the lyrical tone upbeat, perhaps to mirror the positive vibe his brother always seemed to exude. Yancey Boys will make you realize the impact Jay Dee had on hip-hop. It also proves his younger brother can adequately carry the torch. - Eddie Fleisher

Nikka Costa

Pebble to a Pearl

(Stax)

Don't let the Stax label fool you - this isn't genuine soul music. It is, however, an occasionally clever and simulated approximation of it. Costa has been making records since 1981, before she even turned 10. But she really found her footing at the top of the decade, when her albums started getting released in the U.S. (she's American but was born in Tokyo; her dad arranged some of Frank Sinatra's best songs).

On Pebble to a Pearl, her third CD since 2001's semi-breakthrough Everybody Got Their Something, the 36-year-old singer lays down a funky foundation that's as thick and sticky as anything the venerable Stax record company released in the early '70s - indeed, opener "Stuck to You" is a gooey cluster of handclaps and strings. And the ballad "Someone for Everyone" simmers to a scalding boil. But it all comes off more than a tad artificial, like a kid playing dress-up in Mom and Dad's work clothes. Costa's got the heart and voice for this, but she doesn't quite have the soul. She may have gotten there long before Amy Winehouse, but Pebble to a Pearl's faux-R&B sounds empty by comparison. - Michael Gallucci

Los Campesinos!

We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

(Arts & Crafts)

Los Campesinos! are fun to watch grow up, because they embody half a decade's worth of nu-indie hallmarks (meta, twee, overarranged, overagonized) only faster. Setting the wiseacre excesses of Sufjan Stevens or Islands on caffeinated fast-forward, they earn the ludicrous exclamation point in their moniker for a third and (God help us) final time this year, after the proud "International Tweexcore Underground" single and hyperactive Hold on Now, Youngster debut album.

Calling We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed more of the same is rote, if not just plain lazy; it's a less wordy, more guitar-heavy enterprise, with less emphasis on crashing epics and a HŸsker Du-like dedication to continuing to fire while they've still got the bullets. It's the least Campesinos!-like thing they've put out so far, if only because it veers closer to an invented normality of riffs - and because the longest song title is only 12 words long this time. Also, there are fewer signature anthems that can stack up with Youngster's "You! Me! Dancing!" or "My Year in Lists" on the pavilion-chant scorecard (the superb "Ways to Make It Through the Wall" or maybe "Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1" come close). But the unweathered solidity, momentum and refusal to let up on blurry violin hooks and wheedling synths comprise their easiest album to digest. - Dan Weiss

Various Artists

Awake My Soul/Help Me To Sing

(Awake Productions)

The Sacred Harp was an early American songbook that used an odd system of geometric shapes instead of just the ovals of standard written music notation to teach music. Originating in colonial New England, the obscure a cappella Shape Note genre has survived, hidden in tucked-away corners of the rural South. The songs, mostly spirituals, are strangely raw yet complex, bittersweet and eccentric four-part harmonies belted out with rowdy intensity, falling somewhere between U.K. pub sing-a-longs and gospel bluegrass.

The first half of this two-disc set doubles as the soundtrack to the documentary Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp and features contemporary recordings of traditional Shape Note singers. As can happen with new exposure to an unfamiliar genre, a CD's worth of the material initially can be taxing in large doses, but it's a staggering collection of disarming, exhilarating and explosive music. Disc two, Help Me To Sing, features 20 non-traditional covers of Sacred Harp standards by an impressive folk/indie roster, including riveting performances by Elvis Perkins, the Innocence Mission and others. These varied, accessibly contemporary interpretations reveal the rich beauty and diversity of the songwriting to even uninitiated ears. Although few artists here exploit the genre's distinctive vocal-harmony roots, artists like Richard Buckner and John Wesley Harding contribute some nice multi-tracked vocal cuts. - Michael David Toth

Frances

All the While

(Gigantic Music)

What should be a recipe for pretentious and unlistenable music has instead resulted in one of the year's best debuts. Frances frontman Paul Hogan is a doctoral music student in New York City, studying modern classical. When a guy like Hogan forms a pop band, you may expect the experimental side of his pedigree to dominate, but Hogan wisely lets the other five members of his sextet have some say. The outcome is the breathtaking All the While, a dizzying array of superb melodies, intricate yet graspable arrangements and a catalog of influences too numerous to mention.

Producer Chris Zane, while noted for his work on a stream of artier projects like Les Savvy Fav and Asobi Seksu, here lets Hogan and his cohorts work toward their poppier tendencies. The strategy pays off on winning cuts like the stunning "Cousin" and the jaunty "The Brain." The band keeps things mostly light, but its complex arrangements grow to include all manner of strings, bells and glockenspiels that never overwhelm their melodic core. Closer "The New Decoy" carries a Pink Floyd-influenced melody, building to the sort of cacophonous climax that Sufjan Stevens excels at and finishing with a coda that sounds lifted from Jellyfish's Spilt Milk. (And when did you imagine seeing Pink Floyd, Sufjan Stevens and Jellyfish referred to within the same sentence?) What could have been affected music is instead Frances' effusive bow, proving that even the over-educated can contribute. - Chris Drabick

Secret Machines

Secret Machines

(TSM)

 Don't let the modern electronic whooshes fool you - Dallas noisemakers the Secret Machines were born 35 years too late. On its third album of synth-spiked psychedelia, the group (now down to a trio) goes into interstellar overdrive with a bunch of headphone-hugging cuts inspired by Pink Floyd, David Bowie and, presumably, lots of drugs. The Secret Machines aren't into hooks, riffs or anything pop-minded like that; they're all about spreading ear-piercing vibes over five, six, seven minutes - whatever it takes, man. And like its prog-rock and acid-scarred predecessors, Secret Machines' best tracks are the long ones: the guitar-drenched "Have I Run Out," the aptly titled "The Walls Are Starting to Crack" (the mid-song breakdown is straight outta The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and the closing "The Fire Is Waiting," 11 minutes of clambering, churning freak-out. Shine on, you crazy diamonds. - Gallucci

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