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Welsh vocalist adds great piano to songs of hope, loss

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 8:39 p.m.

‘Ebb & Flow'

Judith Owen (Caroline)

With a hint of Joni Mitchell and a trace of Diana Krall, Judith Owen creates her own form of folk-jazz on “Ebb & Flow.” The Welsh singer who often is a vocal compatriot of guitarist Richard Thompson offers a look a life, love and loss along with everyday despair in a set of 12 mostly original songs. But she also reaches into the James Taylor's “Hey, Mister, That's Me up on the Jukebox” and even Mungo Jerry's “In the Summertime.” But the strength of the album — other than her convincing voice — are originals such as “Under the Door” and “Train Out of Hollywood,” songs that deal with the harshness of life, but with some hope. While the majority of the songs are in the singer-songwriter variety, “About Love” and “Some Arrows Go Deep” have a jazzy flavor, and “Sweet Feet” reaches into a gospel sound. Along with great singing, Owen adds strong piano work. She is surrounded by drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who have been sidemen on many of the hit albums of Taylor and Carole King. They and Owen sound perfectly suited for each other.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Courage Music'

Ellen Rowe Quinter (PKO)

Pianist Ellen Rowe knows about courage. She says on the liner notes of this album the title comes from a poem by her sister, a woman who has shown great courage in dealing with cancer. Her sister says she admires Rowe's bravery at sticking with jazz, not always a great career choice. On this album, Rowe shows her musical dedication in a collection of music that never weakens as it moves from quintet work to a suite using the University of Michigan Chamber Jazz Ensemble. “Courage Music,” also the title of one of the quintet pieces, is a strong effort in many ways. Besides featuring good music, the album is performed by a group that has the dependable trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. She is particularly good on “... And Miles to Go,” the suite with the jazz ensemble. The music tends to cruise along in easy-going, mid-tempo moods, but ends with a somber “Gentle Spirit,” which includes a visit from trombonist Paul Ferguson. That selection shows Rowe's understanding that some pieces of music need other elements to give them life.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Blue Smoke'

Dolly Parton (Sony Masterworks)

Dolly Parton, at age 68, creates her best album in more than a dozen years by returning to the bluegrass-flavored sound that worked so well for her at the turn of the century. “Blue Smoke” succeeds partly because the Country Music Hall of Fame member's songwriting pen remains sharp. “Unlikely Angel” and the family melodrama “Miss You-Miss Me” join the three-part harmony of the title cut in adding to Parton's considerable legacy as a songwriter. The emphasis on banjo, fiddle and gospel-style harmony is reminiscent of 1999's “The Grass Is Blue,” a Parton career highlight. Her update of the traditional murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio” fits the bill, too. But Parton expands her musical palette with two risky covers. She gives Bob Dylan's “Don't Think Twice” a bluegrass treatment and transforms Bon Jovi's “Lay Your Hands on Me” into a surprisingly effective Baptist rave-up. Overall, “Blue Smoke” is another triumph from one of American music's most treasured artists.

— Associated Press


Rascal Flatts (Big Machine)

Rascal Flatts may have named their ninth album “Rewind,” but, musically, the country-pop trio takes a much-needed step forward. Punching up arrangements with rock energy (“Payback”) and synth-pop flourishes (“Honeysuckle Lazy”), the band undergoes a contemporary-country makeover as it celebrate its 15th year. The result makes for a more fun, mature and diverse sound — washing away the stale taste of recent outings. On “Rewind,” lead singer Gary LeVox, bassist-pianist-singer Jay Demarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney take a bigger hand in their production, cutting more than half of the album on their own. Led by Demarcus, who has co-produced albums by Jo Dee Messina and the rock band Chicago, the trio moves the needle forward on the engaging “DJ Tonight” and the title cut, a recent country Top 10 hit.

— Associated Press

‘Indie Cindy'

Pixies (Pixiesmusic)

Twenty-three years is a long time between drinks, and that's what's passed between the Pixies' last studio album (1991's “Trompe le Monde”) and this handsome cobbling-together of new EPs, recorded with original members Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering and their premier producer, Gil Norton. In this reteaming, with several still-raw bruises (not to mention their well-documented shifts in female bassists), the Pixies' instrumental menace and spidery arrangements are zealously intact, along with their signature start-and-stop-on-a-dime dynamics, jangle-crunch guitars and Francis' insistently icy allusions to grouchy gods and mopey monsters of all stripes. Like much of “Indie Cindy's” best, a savage song such as “Bagboy” would be right at home on their classic album “Doolittle.” Not that Francis' corrosive kvetches, moans and heated hollers sounds dated. Their ferocity feels particularly fresh-yet-familiar on tracks such as “Andro Queen.” What's updated is the sound, the way tunes like “What Goes Boom” and “Snakes” bound from your speakers.

— Philadelphia Inquirer

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