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Allison Moorer

[Sugar Hill] B

There's still some of the Neil Young/Crazy Horse hurricane-force power that characterized her 2004 album Duel, but this time the Alabama singer-songwriter and producer Steve Earle (her husband) are more interested in showing off Moorer's power-pop chops, veering wide and far from her country roots.

That leads to a few cuts that scream "hit single," but light and breezy romance has never been what has made Moorer worth seeking out. The leadoff track, "Work to Do," and the "Got to Get You Into My Life"-inspired "If It's Just for Today" bring a level of thoughtfulness to bouncy and hummable tunes that puts them a notch above most of what's on Top 40 radio - not that these are likely to wind up there. Her darker stuff is far more compelling.

If "New Years Day" isn't a direct reference to the childhood tragedy she and her older sister, Shelby Lynne, suffered when their father shot their mother to death and then killed himself, this ominous tale may as well be. That leads into "How She Does It," in which Moorer sings in third-person admiration of a mother of young children who risks escaping an abusive relationship.

A heartfelt ode to love such as "You'll Never Know" may bring emotional balance, but it fades into the woodwork in the company of "Hallelujah," her offering of thanks for the strength that comes through sheer survival.

Getting somewhere? Maybe, but she also has some work to do.

The Futureheads

News and Tributes

[Vagrant/StarTime International] B+

There's something irresistibly infectious about the way these four Brits throw themselves into the vocal harmonies that dominate their music, like a line of lieutenants in a Gilbert and Sullivan scene.

Beyond defining much of the Futureheads' sound, this technique can provide distinctive emotional shadings to the songs. One especially tart note, for example, injects a pang of pain into the title song, about a 1958 plane crash that killed several members of the Manchester United soccer team.

That lament for the flower of British youth comes from a Sunderland band whose energy and earnestness place it in that tradition, and this second album is an advance in both writing and sound from its promising 2004 debut.

Much of its pleasure derives from its playful execution at breakneck speeds. If you play choppy fast enough, it turns out, it becomes smooth. And whatever higher artistic purpose they serve, those vocal acrobatics are fun pure and simple, recalling the Who's heyday as an eccentric pop band.

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

The River in Reverse

[Verve] A

This trans-Atlantic reunion of the British rocker-cum-man of all musical milieus with Toussaint, one of the deans of New Orleans pop and R&B;, has a remarkably timely - and relevant - feel considering several of the tunes are 10 to 20 years old or older.

Costello and songwriter-pianist-arranger Toussaint met when the former recorded parts of his 1989 album Spike with Crescent City musicians. Their new collaboration came together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastating ride through Louisiana, and not surprisingly, the album hits hardest in those numbers that take on the broad sweep of a cry for social and political justice.

The opening cut, "On Your Way Down," is anchored in the golden rule as it applies to interpersonal relationships, yet also targets the subject of life's haves versus its have-nots: "You think the sun rises and sets for you/But the same sun rises, sets and shines on the poor folks too."

Toussaint's gently funky "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" similarly decries the imbalanced scales of society, while Costello takes his best shot at the powers on high in the title tune. His signature acidic touch emerges in this tale of looming danger: "Count your blessings when they ask permission/To govern with money and superstition."

The undercurrent of anger is balanced in several gospel-tinged numbers, notably "Nearer to You," a waltzing declaration of romantic connection that becomes a fervent spiritual plea in this pair's passionate hands.

In the album's central conundrum, Costello sings, "What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?" This time, there's no answer conveniently blowing in the wind.

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