BELLE AND SEBASTIAN THE LIFE PURSUIT
Scotland's most adorable rock collective continues to mess around with disco rhythms and glam-rock guitar licks, but the best songs on its sixth album are the ones that come on the softest. Dress Up in You is built on the same blueprint--sad piano, whispered Stuart Murdoch vocals and a gradual revelation that the song is sung from a female perspective--as many of B&S's earlier hits, while Another Sunny Day takes a pickup soccer game ("I saw you in the corner of my eye on the sidelines/ Your dark mascara bids me to historical deeds") and elevates it into a love story of epic proportions.
NEKO CASE FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD
Whether sitting in with pop-punk group the New Pornographers or standing on her own as an alt-country princess, Case has always had a voice that lingers like a train whistle. What she hasn't had is an album worthy of her talent. The lyrics on this collection of gothic outsider tales feel a little reductive (Star Witness and A Widow's Toast are like under-grad verse about Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County), but with excellent backing from Calexico and Garth Hudson of the Band and flawless singing, Case sells them as undeniably haunting and catchy mood pieces.
CYRUS CHESTNUT GENUINE CHESTNUT What makes Chestnut the best jazz pianist of his generation is a willingness to abandon notes and to play space. He rescues Roberta Flack's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Bread's truly horrible AM-radio hit If from years of accumulated treacle by tinkling out the barest hint of melody, confidently letting each note float around until it resolves itself in your head. He's equally adept at spelling his minimalism with funk on the original Ellen's Song, and closes with a solo version of Lord, I Give Myself to You, in which he harmonizes with himself in glorious fashion.
Alison Goldfrapp has described her band's third album as a "place to take part in fortnightly disco séances." If you like your dance divas nuttier than a fruitcake, she's definitely your gal. What's surprising is that Goldfrapp (who started out as the wordless howler on Tricky's finest albums) and musical partner Will Gregory also have a sublime pop sensibility. Ooh la la is a sticky homage to Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky and Kylie Minogue's lyric book ("switch me on/ turn me up"). Meanwhile, the synth-rock ballad Number 1 has enough instantly memorable atmospherics to make its title prophetic.
NE-YO IN MY OWN WORDS Unlike most R&B singers, Ne-Yo writes his own material (or co-writes it, anyway), and the album title lets you know he would like a little respect for his work. The breakaway hit So Sick, a ballad about a brokenhearted guy who can't stop listening to brokenhearted ballads, delivers a light, genre-spoofing twist, but the other songs soar less on writerly sophistication than on Ne-Yo's deftness with a hook and particularly sincere brand of shamelessness. On It Just Ain't Right, he samples '80s legend DeBarge and confesses to an old girlfriend, "I'll be sexing her and I call your name"--a lyric that could have been written by a hundred of his predecessors, but only Ne-Yo would think to deliver it as if it were the world's highest compliment. It's not right, but it's certainly memorable.