Various Artists (Verge)
The music and the poverty of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are both world famous and inextricably linked. Many of Brazil's musicians are from Rio's most dilapidated slums (favelas), and poverty provides a backdrop to much of the country's music. The Inspiring New Sounds of Rio de Janeiro, the first release by the independent Verge Records label, makes this connection explicit, bringing together hip-hop, reggae, rock, reggaeton, and more traditional Brazilian influences like samba and bossa nova while delivering a strongly political and humanitarian message.
The album is a compilation by five artists on the Verge label, including three tracks by the group Movimento Na Rua ("Street Movement" in Portuguese), whose ranks include former gang members who are now outspoken critics of the drug trade. The song "Soldados Nunca Mais" ("Soldiers Never More") is a hard-rocking anthem about their conversion. * Music's power to change lives is one of the driving forces behind the album. Verge donates a portion of its profits to fund youth arts programs in the impoverished neighborhoods where the music came from and has partnered with the nonprofit Schools Without Borders to improve education for children in Rio de Janeiro. The two groups are also working together to build a local recording studio, so more albums like this can be made. --Bennett Gordon
Drummer Jim White has played before with Nina Nastasia, recording and touring as part of the folksinger's band. But in their first official just-you-and-me project, the sound is surprisingly, beautifully fresh--swooping, exhilarating music underscored by delicate yet crashing drums. Nastasia has a sweet, urgent voice, and she's capable of turning on a dime and kicking an aching whisper into a heart-thumping battle cry. Her guitar playing is equally commanding, and White, a member of Australia's instrumental trio the Dirty Three, answers her with complex and expressive percussion. His feisty drums hiss and punch, transcending any charges of rhythmic backbone to become the other half of a balanced equation. The resulting sound is absolutely arresting. --Julie Hanus
Singer-songwriter Peter Case has been documenting society's starry-eyed losers and sacred bums for three decades now, and his kinship with down-and-outers is no act: He's even writing a memoir, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport, about his travels through back alleys in search of friendship and songs. His quest continues on Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, an album full of spare but vivid character sketches, storylike blues ballads, and holler-along numbers that demonstrate Case's broad talent and big heart. "Million Dollars Bail" tells a tale of "two kinds of justice," "Underneath the Stars" reveals the gentle side of a troubled soul, and "Ain't Gonna Worry No More" probes the nation's conflicted psyche. Named in honor of Sleepy John Estes, one of Case's blues heroes, the album is a raggedly honest report from the fringe. --Keith Goetzman
Hesta Prynn, Sprout, and Spero of the New York trio Northern State have sometimes been considered the female Beastie Boys, but on Can I Keep This Pen? they rise above this misleading label by embracing a pop sensibility that encourages dancing as much as it does mouthy rebellion. Departing from the Beasties' angsty commentary, the three balance a hint of wit with bubbly pop lyrics such as "I'm working on my tan, getting nice and rotund / And you can write that check directly to my smoochie's fund." Throughout the album, they kick a decidedly old-school flow that weaves from the sullenly poetic chorus of "Fall Apart" to the jovial braggadocio of "Ohhh Girl," and they even lace a cheeky feminine wile into the blips and bleeps of the scratch-heavy track "Things I'll Do," proving that the album is as smart as it is sonically dynamic. --Chris Gehrke
In the early '70s, vocalist Charles Walker--after grooving for a decade in venues such as New York's Apollo Theater and recording for the likes of Chess Records--left home for Europe, where a burgeoning R&B scene promised steady work. Now 64, he has emerged from subsequent stateside obscurity to record with the Dynamites, a nine-piece soul train that plays with bar-band abandon and rides the crest of classic funk's latest rebirth, which comes courtesy of hip-hop DJs and college kids whose musical tastes have been liberated online. The old-school influences are palpable: Sly Stone, James Brown, a little George Clinton to slop things up. But this is not a retroactive tribute. The live-sounding production values, all deep bass and spit-soaked brass, are meant to be boomed through a subwoofer or, better still, cranked at a block party. --David Schimke