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Jay-Z stays on top by refusing to be mundane

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

‘Magna Carta Holy Grail'

Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella Records)

Jay-Z set the bar high for himself with the buildup given this album in the weeks since the surprise announcement that it would be available for free to 1 million Samsung customers on July 4. But that's just the kind of challenge the rapper, who once claimed to walk on water, thrives on. The music was more than worth the wait. A coolly confident Hov boasts of his wealth, but also ponders what it's really worth and when is enough on “Picasso, Baby.” He also contemplates his fitness for parenthood in light of having been raised without a father on “Jay-Z Blue,” and questions on “Nickels and Dimes” whether his charitable giving stems from genuine concern or guilt. He has fun, too. “BBC” is an old-school posse cut with Nas, Beyoncé, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell and Timbaland. Elsewhere, he gets help from Justin Timberlake, Rick Ross and Frank Ocean. The breadth of his subject matter — which also touches on family, loyalty, spirituality and fame — is matched by his lyrical acuity. His perspective is that of someone who has achieved much but hasn't lost sight of what brought him to this point.With platinum status guaranteed even before the album went on sale, he could have just mailed it in. But he stays on top, because he refuses to do anything less than epic.

— USA Today

‘People Music'

Christian McBride & Inside Straight (Mack Avenue)

‘Out Here'

Christian McBride Trio (Mack Avenue)

Christian McBride's wide-ranging talent is no surprise. He builds awareness of his level of play on two closely released albums, “People Music” with his Inside Straight band and “Out Here” with his trio. Inside Straight is a band that shouts “listen to us” simply because of its personnel. Leading a band of pianist Peter Martin, drummer Carl Allen, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and vibraphonist Warren Wolf, McBride offers an examination of original, disciplined jazz that is as strong in ensemble play as it is in soloing. Not only is this album full of fine, post-modern jazz, but it also is another display showing Wolf probably is the heir-apparent to Bobby Hutcherson. “Out Here,” which will be released Aug. 6, features McBride in his trio with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. It is mindful of the later trios of Pittsburgh native Ray Brown, who functioned as a leader but always let his sidemen get plenty of room to perform. McBride is hard-working, but stays out of the way of Sands in particular. The album is filled with well-known numbers such as “My Favorite Things” and “I Have Dreamed,” but never lets that familiarity bog it down.

— Bob Karlovits

‘George Shearing at Home'

George Shearing and Don Thompson (Jazz Knight)

Even though this album was recorded in 1983 by a pianist who died in 2011, it is a new piece of the canon of George Shearing. He and bassist Don Thompson were working together at the time and went to his apartment to go through some material. Those dates led to the idea of making a recording, which never appeared until now. On the liner notes, Thompson talks about how the recordings are of Shearing at his most relaxed: at home on his personal piano. The album features 10 duo tracks and four solo recordings of classic material such as “Laura,” “Confirmation,” “A Time for Love” and “The Things We Did Last Summer.” They even do a jazz version of “The Skye Boat Song.” They all are done in that classic Shearing method that is clear and refined but rich in melodic thought.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Light Heat'

Light Heat (Ribbon Music)

The new Philly buzz band of the moment is Light Heat, the songwriting project of Quentin Stoltzfus, whose band Mazarin was the Philly buzz band of about a decade ago. Working with members of The Walkmen — who covered Mazarin's “Another One Goes By” on their 2006 album “A Hundred Miles Off” — Stoltzfus returns with his first set of new songs in eight years, and he doesn't miss a beat. Listen close to tunes like “Elevation” and “A Loyal Subject of the Status Quo,” and you might notice socially observant lyrics laced with more than a touch of cynicism. But focus on the flutter and chime of the guitars, steady lift of harmonies, and forward momentum of the Velvet Underground-style drones, and any taste of bitterness is likely to magically disappear.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Honey Locust Honky Tonk'

Robert Pollard (GBV)

Robert Pollard unleashes music at an alarming rate. He's indefatigable, and he expects the same untiring commitment from his fans, although even the most ardent among them must find it a challenge not to suffer from Pollard Fatigue. Since the beginning of last year, the recently reactivated Guided By Voices, one of the classic cult bands of the past two decades, released four albums and an EP, and now comes another Pollard solo album, his third in the same period, and, by some counts, his 23rd solo set. “Honey Locust Honky Tonk” is yet another example of Pollard's strengths, with surprisingly few diversions into his weaknesses. The 17 brief songs are lyrically cryptic and musically direct, with 44-second fragments (“I Have to Drink”), fitful ballads (“Circus Green Machines”) and full-fledged anthems (“Flash Gordon Style”), and with few half-baked lo-fi diversions. It's no radical departure, but the already converted will find it another satisfying collection from indie-rock's most prolific hero.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Still Fighting the War'

Slaid Cleaves (Music Road)

Although he's from Maine, Slaid Cleaves now hails from Austin, and he has an abiding love for the Lone Star State, as he shows on the jaunty “Texas Love Song” and “God's Own Yodeler,” his tribute to the late, big-voiced country singer Don Walser, “the Pavarotti of the Plains.” As the album title indicates, however, Cleaves has some deeper and darker themes to explore, and the folk-country troubadour does so with his usual sharpness and grace. “Still Fighting the War” lays out the debilitating costs to veterans; “Welding Burns”is an empathetic portrait of his hardworking father; and “Rust Belt Fields” confronts bitter truths more with resignation than anger (“No one remembers your name just for working hard”). In his understated way, Cleaves is just as powerful when dealing with matters of the heart on “Without Her” and “I Bet She Does,” or pondering his own endon “Voice of Midnight,” where he declares, “I'll take my comfort in song.” Easier to do when the songs are as good as those here.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

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