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Review: Martha Wainwright, 'Come Home to Mama'

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marthamama.jpgMartha Wainwright, "Come Home to Mama" (Cooperative) 3<br />
and a half stars -- The secret weapon in the Wainwright family, Martha is a wicked and potent genealogical branch bearing her father Loudon's sometimes uncomfortably honest confessional songwriting, her brother Rufus' occasional grandiose musical ambitions and her mother Kate McGarrigle's talent for modernizing and enlivening old, staid folk traditions.

Recorded at Sean Lennon's home studio and produced by Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda (and featuring guests such as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Dirty Three drummer Jim White), "Come Home to Mama," Wainwright's third outing (fourth, if you count the knock-down awesome Piaf record), is also a blend -- of the singer-songwritery angst of her 2005 debut and the rock leanings of 2008's "I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too."

Review: Donald Fagen, 'Sunken Condos'

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fagencondos.jpgDonald Fagen, "Sunken Condos" (Reprise) 2<br />
and a half stars -- After three solo records he called "The Nightfly" trilogy, named for the 1982 debut -- with each LP at least a decade apart -- Steely Dan leader Donald Fagen returns to the scene in record time, dropping a fourth album a mere six years after "Morph the Cat." Retroactively calling it a trilogy, though, was always a bit far-fetched, and this certainly isn't a departure. There's little music on "Sunken Condos" that couldn't have slotted seamlessly into any of the previous albums. No creative left-turns here -- it's the same impeccable playing, starchy horn charts and detached tales of beautiful urban losers.

Music reviews: Birds of Chicago, John Cale, more

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Birds of Chicago, "Birds of Chicago" (BOC) 3<br />
and a half stars
BOC.jpgAs refreshing and rewarding as morning in the reeds with the Audobon Society, Birds of Chicago is actually the naturalistic pairing of Chicago's JT Nero (as in JT & the Clouds) and Vancouver's Allison Russell (Po' Girl). After working together on a JT project (2011's "Mountains/Forests"), they wisely realized they had something special in their organic harmonies and wistful affections for the wide variety of music under the auspices of Americana. The braiding of their singular voices is surprising and often magical -- bouncing over the bass grooves of "Trampoline," boogieing through the Cajun howdown of "Sans Souci," blithely regarding the "Humboldt Crows" in the park -- and the flock of musicians on board for the record provide a downy padding to the blend. It's like Delaney & Bonnie sitting in with Poi Dog Pondering -- a record sweet as birdsong.

In concert: Birds of Chicago celebrates the release of this album Nov. 10 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Music reviews: Tame Impala, Ty Segall

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Tame Impala, "Lonerism" (Modular) 3<br />
and a half stars
Ty Segall, "Twins" (Drag City) 3<br />
stars

lonerism.jpgTwo head-turning acts from summer Chicago festivals return with rewarding new albums this week. First, Tame Impala -- an acclaimed Australian trio that played Lollapalooza's first day in August -- delivers a sophomore set that is the very opposite of a slump. "Lonerism" is still rife with the sheepish lyricism of the band's bedroom beginnings ("Destined to be / lonely old me," Kevin Parker sings in the swirling psychedelia of "Why Won't They Talk to Me?"), but it's much bolder than "Innerspeak," their debut, both in its occasional use of careening Swervedriver guitar and the songs' confident pop sensibilities. Rarely has a band reaped so much from the "Tomorrow Never Knows" side of Beatlesque-ness, and not just because Parker's voice is often a dead ringer for full-on Leslie-cabinet Lennon. The heady swirl of the instruments, the obvious nods to Todd Rundgren's "A Wizard, a True Star," harmonic achievements that would bewitch Fleet Foxes -- it's a heady mixture and maybe not so tame, after all.

Music reviews: Shemekia Copeland, Congregation, more

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Shemekia Copeland, "33 1/3" (Telarc) 3<br />
stars
The Congregation, "Right Now Everything" (The Congregation) 3<br />
and a half stars

sc33.jpgContinuing Chicago's hot season for local releases, these two scorchers advocate forcefully for the city's soulful roots. Shemekia Copeland, nearly 15 years into a career but only as old as this album's title, seems to have been bequeathed Koko Taylor's title as Queen of the Blues. She deserves it, showcasing on "33 1/3" the worthwhile effort and resulting majesty in successfully blending old-world soul with new-age sass. Sticking with producer Oliver Wood (who guided her first post-Alligator Records outing, 2009's "Never Going Back") and restocking the cupboard with rich material (Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, her dad Johnny Copeland) -- and joined on one track by Buddy Guy ("Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo") -- Copeland delivers a moody, smoky set worthy of some kind of crown.

Music reviews: Green Day, No Doubt

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Green Day, "¡Uno!" (Reprise) Half star
No Doubt, "Push and Shove" (Interscope) 3<br />
stars

greendayuno.jpgAfter the ambitious one-two punches of "American Idiot" and "21st Century Breakdown," Green Day couldn't help but retract its grandiose visions. Trapped by the expectation of event albums, though, they pull back to their simple power-pop roots by releasing not one, not two, but three albums within the course of the next few months. The first, "¡Uno!" (to be followed by, of course, "¡Dos!" on Nov. 13 and the hopefully all drum-solo album "¡Tré!" on Jan. 13) doesn't make the case for why we need two more platters of this very safe, very crisp and very clean pop-rock. Scrubbed free of any intellectual ideals and delving into only the shallowest of romantic depths, "¡Uno!" doesn't even rate that many stars. If I had to play this anti-punk pablum, I'd freak out on stage, too.

Music review: Kanye's G.O.O.D. mix, 'Cruel Summer'

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cruelsummer.jpegVarious Artists, "Cruel Summer" (G.O.O.D.) 2<br />
and a half stars -- A year and a half ago, Kanye West trotted the roster of his G.O.O.D. Music record label across a Texas stage in the middle of the night, like a musical fashion show. Then we waited for the compilation.

And waited. It was delayed, and delayed again.

Finally, on Tuesday (and after a handful of previews and a couple of online leaks), "Cruel Summer," Kanye's latest collection from his boutique rap label is due.

Worth the wait? Yes and no.

SCrunner.jpgThe Sea & Cake, "Runner" (Thrill Jockey) 4<br />
stars -- The Sea & Cake is the sound of 21st-century Chicago. In a metropolis slowly but surely evolving beyond its big-shouldered blues legacy, this artful, deceptively easygoing quartet remains a big tent of influences (plus rich collaborative resumés) while remaining relentlessly consistent; regardless of how they may color their edges, the Sea & Cake always sound like themselves: crisp, clean, humble, utterly modern. Technically, yes, they're post-rock, but without the sonic cubism common to bands usually saddled with that hyphen. "Runner," their ninth full-length (and a swift follow-up to last year's expressive EP, "The Moonlight Butterfly"), is another cool lake breeze -- 10 more songs worthy of careful listening (each player is vital, inextricable, wholly present in the mix) or just as easily employed as zone-out music on the L. Supple grooves, subtle electronics, guitar artistry, singer Sam Prekop's long, sweet sighs -- the city's perfect band.
In concert: The Sea & Cake is scheduled Oct. 29 at City Winery.

Music review: Bob Dylan, 'Tempest'

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dylantempest.jpgBob Dylan, "Tempest" (Columbia) 3<br />
stars -- Curse Dylan's pedigree. Bob Dylan -- the irascible genius, the living legend, the reclusive wunder-coot -- has been making truly stellar music this century, but the requisite galaxy of four- and five-star reviews is blinding and off-putting to many mere mortals who might really dig this stuff. More young listeners groomed by shuffled playlists and postmodern retro experiments, from the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Mumford & Sons (who shared the stage with Dylan at last year's Grammys), likely would relish Dylan's spirited spelunking through early 20th-century pop music and now, on "Tempest," mid-century blues and folk balladry. Critics keep harping on how Dreadfully Important it all is, because the Dylan legend must be maintained. But it's not. "Love and Theft," the ironically titled "Modern Times," that nutty Christmas album -- it's all just good Americana (really good). Without the '60s-savior pedigree, though, this stuff wouldn't rate a booking any bigger than, say, City Winery or S.P.A.C.E.

Music reviews: Frank Ocean, Passion Pit, thenewno2

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At Lollapalooza, fans often either show up to the band's set because they've heard the new album, or they leave the band's set eager to hear the new album.

Last weekend's Lollapalooza 2012 -- when it wasn't being rained out -- presented a handful of good performances, with many of the artists drawing from some stellar new albums. Here are three such records worth picking up or downloading now that we've all gotten the mud cleaned off:

channelO.jpgFrank Ocean, "Channel Orange" (Def Jam) 3<br />
and a half stars -- "A tornado flew around my room before you came," Frank Ocean sings by way of opening his debut album, "Channel Orange." Immediately before this album's release, Ocean certainly created a media storm with a sly online admission of his broad-minded sexuality. Many understandably suspected the move was calculated to raise the hype for his new album; indeed, the resulting buzz caused "Channel Orange" to be rush-released. Fortunately, all that fuss turned out to be irrelevant. This is an album brimming with genius and vision -- it requires no cheap tactics to sell its overall accomplishment.

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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