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BuzzCuts: New Music

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Fat Joe is back with a gritty new CD, jazz greats Al Jarreau and George Benson team up on new album, harpist Joanna Newsom makes beautiful poetry on new CD, Trail of Dead's "So Divided" showcases their unified purpose, Akon delivers solid sophomore set, and Joan Osbourne goes country with excellent results.

Fat Joe – "Me, Myself and I"
George Benson, Al Jarreau – "Givin' It Up"
Joanna Newsom – "Ys"
Trail of Dead – "So Divided"

Akon – "Konvicted"
Joan Osbourne – "Pretty Little Stranger"

Fat Joe, "Me, Myself and I" (Virgin)

After more than a decade making rap records and gaining mainstream success by pairing up with R&B stars, Fat Joe returns with a harder sound on "Me, Myself and I."

His latest album, on a new label, is a raw, more personal project that may surprise fans more familiar with his mainstream collaborations or club hits like "Lean Back."

The start of "Me, Myself and I" is brutish, with jabs at 50 Cent and hood declarations about being the "only Puerto Rican in Harlem/now that's stardom."

The tone is set from the beginning: this ain't the Fat Joe featured on the latest Paris Hilton song. This is the man known as Joey Crack.

The songs tread the familiar subjects of sex, drugs and violence but also get deep with lyrics about Hurricane Katrina and heartfelt with "Bendicion Mami," a song about his mother.

A perennial featured artist on others' albums, Fat Joe keeps his guest list on "Me, Myself and I" short.

One of those collaborations, "The Profit" with Lil' Wayne, is the best track on the album, with a blasting but simple beat and solid performances from both rappers.

The pared-downed production of the album mostly works, but some tracks, such as "She's My Mama," end up sounding amateurish.

Fat Joe takes a deliberate step back from his mainstream success with a gutsy record that may prove more of a street success than a commercial one. (Olivia Munoz)

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George Benson & Al Jarreau, "Givin' It Up" (Concord Records/Monster Music)

Guitarist/vocalist George Benson and singer Al Jarreau both started out in straight-ahead jazz before crossing over into pop and R&B to enjoy Grammy-winning, chart-topping success. But surprisingly, "Givin' It Up" (Concord Records/Monster Music) is the first album they've recorded together.

The duo opens the disc by reinventing two of their biggest hits. Benson's "Breezin" is turned into a vocal number with lyrics penned by Jarreau, who mixes crisp vocal lines with some scat singing over Benson's guitar licks. On Jarreau's "Morning," Benson returns the favor by making it over as an instrumental with Jarreau sounding like a percussionist in his backup vocals.

The covers include Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," given a contemporary flavor by Benson and neo-soul singer Jill Scott, who trade lead vocals; Seals & Crofts' pop tune "Summer Breeze"; and John Legend's "Ordinary People," done as an instrumental with Benson's soulful guitar supported by Marion Meadows' smooth sax.

On Miles Davis' hardbop classic "Four," Benson and Jarreau engage in spirited vocal interplay in a mostly acoustic setting with a rare performance by Stanley Clarke on upright bass, while Davis' later electronic fusion period is represented by the funky blues "'Long Come Tutu" with composer Marcus Miller's bass lines underscoring Jarreau's lead vocal, and Herbie Hancock contributing a stirring acoustic piano solo.

Among the 13 tracks are several Jarreau originals, including the infectiously funk-jazz "Don't Start No Schtuff" with Benson's piercing guitar runs and Jarreau's scatting; and the moody romantic ballad "Let It Rain" featuring Jarreau, Patti Austin and Chris Botti's poignant muted background trumpet.

Unlike much of today's overproduced, formulaic smooth jazz, "Givin' It Up" is loose, spontaneous and full of surprises, particularly on the closer, Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me." Paul McCartney, who was recording in a nearby studio, makes an impromptu vocal cameo before the session ends in a spirited call-and-response gospel groove. (Charles J. Gans)

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Joanna Newsom, "Ys" (Drag City)

It's called psych-folk, a blend of acoustic folk and psychedelic rock with its strange, atmospheric sounds, but it's really much more complicated than that.

"Ys" (pronounced "ees") is the second release from harpist-singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. Yes, harpist.

On "Ys," Newsom — who makes the ancient, stringed instrument sound wonderfully modern — is perfectly accompanied here by a full orchestra. The 55-minute CD is made up of just five songs that are more like long, rambling, romantic poems.

The 24-year-old studied music and writing at Oakland's Mills College and her voice is chirpy and delicate — a less grating Bjork. You'll immediately either love it or hate it.

"Ys," is a beautiful and intriguing listen — impossible to classify or, unfortunately, market to the masses. (Kim Curtis)

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And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, "So Divided" (Interscope).

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead remain one of rock's best-kept secrets — for now.

Their third major-label release in four years, "So Divided," continues the Trail of Dead's unique and lovably arrogant assault on postmodern rock.

Drawing from a rich palette of rock, folk, pop, metal — what don't they use? — the band is wildly unpredictable but manages to remain controlled. Sonic Youth fans can appreciate this charm — they sound like no one else by daring to sound like everything.

Comprised of Conrad Keely (lead vocals, guitar, drums, piano), Jason Reece (drums, lead vocals, guitar), Kevin Allen (lead guitar), Doni Schroader (drums, percussion), and Danny Wood (bass), the group is adamant in doing it their own way. They even went so far as leaking this disc to file-sharing networks six weeks before its release.

They reach anthemic proportions with "Stand in Silence," "Wasted State of Mind" and the rousing closer "Sunken Dreams." The dynamic title track is all over the place, but grounded by an infectious riff, and low-key moments come with the acoustic "Witches Web," the transcendent "Life," and a lush piano cover of Guided By Voices' "Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory." They're even a little playful on "Eight Day Hell."

"So Divided" is another stellar exercise in destroying established rock conventions. Play it loud and lose yourself in the blissful chaos. (John Kosik)

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Akon, "Konvicted" (Universal Motown)

Since emerging with the 2004 breakthrough hit "Locked Up," Senegalese-American singer Akon has rarely let listeners forget that he's been, well ... locked up. The son of respected jazz percussionist Mor Thiam, Akon spent some of his pre-music biz life behind bars.

It's a history not typically associated with R&B singers. But as was the case on his debut album "Trouble," several songs on Akon's solid, aptly titled follow-up, "Konvicted," touch on the moral dilemma of the street game, often showing a measure of regret amid the bravado.

He sounds particularly burdened on "Tired of Runnin'," a bluesy meditation on dealing drugs and the fugitive life, admitting: "That gangster life ain't no longer in me/ And I'm tired of running." And over the West Coast bounce of "Gangsta Bop," he depicts a hustler's life as being wrought with paranoia and despair.

That's Akon's strength: delivering hard-hitting street portraits with an R&B singer's depth of emotion but with a rapper's level of credibility. In fact, most of Akon's vocals resonate somewhere between singing and rapping. It's a highly adaptable hybrid, whether Akon's backing tracks are reggae-flavored ("Mama Africa") or veer off into a soul-pop zone ("Don't Matter," "Never Took the Time").

Akon falters only when he embraces his rap associations too resolutely. On the rump-obsessed "Smack That," Eminem mails in a beat and guest verse, while Akon drops a brick: "Wanna jump up in my Lamborghini Gallardo/ Maybe go to my place and just kick it like Tae Bo." With lines like that, this sensitive thug may have some growing yet to do. (Brett Johnson)

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Joan Osborne, "Pretty Little Stranger" (Vanguard)

The adjectives used to describe Joan Osborne's voice — robust, earthy, sultry, bluesy, Joplin-esque — have never included the word "twangy." But the Kentucky native went country on her first album of original material in six years, and the result is a gem.

Recorded in Nashville, "Pretty Little Stranger" benefits from excellent material — six original songs and six covers of tunes by such artists as the Grateful Dead, Kris Kristofferson and Patty Griffin. The album is full of potential jukebox anthems, with heartbreak the recurring theme as producer Steve Buckingham employs rootsy guitars, a weepy pedal steel and even a banjo in support. Guests Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

Osborne resists any temptation to go hillbilly with her delivery, but the genre suits her big voice, and the results recall Linda Ronstadt, Rosanne Cash, Bonnie Raitt and even Patsy Cline. Bottom line: Osborne has never sounded better, y'all. (Steven Wine)

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Last Week's BuzzCuts: Reviews of albums by Keith Urban and Sugarland