NEW YORK (Billboard) - On her indie debut, much like her previous albums, Long Island, N.Y.-bred Lil’ Mo emotively relates around-the-way tales of love and lust, heartache and heartbreak. On the Donny Roc-assisted “Heartbeat,” she regretfully chants over the thud of a heart monitor about not saying goodbye to a lover killed during a club brawl. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed godmother of R&B seeks the help of a love doctor on the aptly titled “Broken Heart,” requesting everything from an ambulance and medical intervention to therapy and surgery to mend her shambled heart. Even when she’s belting about simple-minded matters like dating a much younger man on “Youngin” and sending naughty flicks of herself to a mate on the flirty “Sexy Pictures,” Mo’s vocals and creative arrangements soar, overshadowing the ho-hum topics.
ALBUM: PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (Columbia Records)
It’s to Patti Scialfa’s considerable credit that she’s launched a potent solo career in the shadow of husband Bruce Springsteen, and in doing so has not tried to chase after anything but the mature kind of music she naturally makes. The Garden State native is at heart a Greenwich Village troubadour with a soul of ... well, soul, the classic variety from Memphis as distilled by scores of Jersey shore joints. “Play It As It Lays” is Scialfa’s third and most accomplished solo album. She makes her sources clear on the Chiffons-referencing “Like Any Woman Would,” the “Sally Go Round the Roses” snippet in “The Word” and the Janis Ian “Society’s Child” nod in “Town Called Heartbreak.” “Play Around” sounds like a lost Lieber & Stoller tune for the Drifters.
ALBUM: I CREATED DISCO (Almost Gold Records)
So far, this 23-year-old Scot has cut a public figure antithetical to the usual scrappy populists who hit the big time via MySpace. He’s disaffected and snide, the kind of guy who would take credit for starting a genre that expired before his birth or make a track eschewing the entire record biz (“This Is Industry”) before the release of his debut album. “I Created Disco” feels renegade, and that’s what makes it more than irresistibly fun synth-pop. Harris favors analog synths over software, giving “Disco” a unique sonic heft. But where next-big-things like overly arty Fischerspooner and sampling trickster Mylo failed, Harris succeeds. This is an accessible album that post-grunge millennials — kids still in the single digits when Kurt Cobain died — can claim as their own.
ALBUM: AUTUMN OF THE SERAPHS (Touch & Go Records)
The unassuming lads in Pinback earned some TV airtime and commercial radio airplay for songs from 2004’s masterwork “Summer in Abaddon,” but there are no overt lunges for the mainstream on their fourth full-length. If anything, save for the frenetic opener “From Nothing to Nowhere,” “Autumn” is noticeably less immediate than its predecessor. But it’s also less inward-looking, particularly on the downright jolly “Good to Sea,” a perfect blend of vintage synth beeps, sturdy basslines and rhythmic guitar figures, and the “Message in a Bottle”-style riff and gleeful lyrics of “Blue Harvest.” Several songs near the end go on too long, content to keep repeating riffs. Still, when “Autumn” is on point, it offers some of Pinback’s best tunes yet.
ALBUM: HEARTPLAY (Naim Records)
This collaboration between bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Antonio Forcione is an awfully appealing duet encounter. “Heartplay” is a lovely bit of acoustic jazz, comprising seven original tunes and a fine cover of Fred Hersch’s “Child’s Song.” The vibe is gentle and contemplative, and the performance is a study in patience and accent. Haden’s bass has an infectious warmth, and he displays his typical fluency throughout the tracks. Forcione’s guitar is by turns bright and moody; his sound on the Hersch cover is crystalline, and his finger work is deft. Cue up Forcione’s song “Nocturne” and check out how he picks his way through the melody; the silence between notes is as portentous as his guitar.
ALBUM: LA RADIOLINA (Nacional/Because)
Six years after Many Chao’s last U.S. studio release, “La Radiolina” swoops in to save the day with the renowned energy of his live shows. Not content to just be bangin’ on his bongo drum, Chao brings a palpable sense of urgency to rock anthems like “Rainin’ in Paradize,” “El Hoyo” and “El Kitapena.” Similar arrangements are repeated throughout, but their beautiful textures — reggae, flamenco, horns and guitar-picking that’s banjo-like in its precision — are involving enough to reel you in every time. The simple, humanizing beauty of “Me Llaman Calle” does for prostitutes what “Clandestino” did for immigrants in 1998.
ALBUM: SWEET DANGER (Royal Duchess Records)
There’s always been a depth and diversity to Suzy Bogguss that signaled she was more than a country singer, so her collaboration with jazz producer Jason Miles isn’t surprising. Some of Nashville’s top songwriters contributed (Gary Burr, Beth Nielsen-Chapman and Doug Crider — Bogguss’ husband — among others), but it’s her pairing with Miles and a mix of Nashville and New York musicians that set the project apart. One of music’s purest vocalists, Bogguss changes things up on “No Good Way to Go,” which finds her analyzing options for leaving her lover, poetry-slam style. Her turn on Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” is familiar and fresh. It’s fitting that the album starts with “The Bus Ride,” a tale about making new friends on a journey, because with “Sweet Danger,” Bogguss is likely to do just that.
ALBUM: BOOGITY, BOOGITY: A TRIBUTE TO THE COMIC GENIUS OF RAY STEVENS (Curb Records)
Cledus T. Judd will be the first one to tell you he didn’t set out to reinvent the music of Ray Stevens. What he did do is enlist the help of country stars to record a fitting tribute. Keith Urban plays guitar on “Gitarzan,” Charlie Daniels duets on “Shriner’s Convention,” and Stevens himself guests on “The Streak.” While “Ahab the Arab” (with Phil Vassar) and “It’s Me Again Margaret” (with Trace Adkins) come across as dated, the best cut far and away is Vince Gill’s and Sonya Isaacs’ version of the Erroll Garner/Johnny Burke classic “Misty” that Stevens released in 1975. “Everything Is Beautiful,” with vocals from such names as Michael English, Wynonna and Rascal Flatts, is another highlight.