Now Hear This 

Pavement, Joan Osborne, John Mayer, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Emily Easterly

Nothing against Kurt and Co., of course. It's just that "Nirvana" contains only one new song, practically begging fans to download "You Know You're Right" and be done with it. On the two-disc "Slanted and Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe," extras include unreleased tracks, two Peel Sessions, the "Watery, Domestic" EP and an entire live concert. It's tough to argue against buying the album a second time.

That endorsement goes double for those who never bought it in the first place. Released in 1992, "Slanted" dragged Pavement's spiky art-rock forebears (Can, the Fall, V.U.) into the California sun, where they could catch a buzz. Stephen Malkmus' cryptic lyrics ("she's eatin' her fingers like they're just another meal") and cryptic band mates like guitarist Spiral Stairs were like mysteries to be unlocked.

All of the remastered original tracks still hold up, from the slacker anthem "Summer Babe" to the heartbreaking "Here." No other album singed the ears of the young and jaded quite like this one. — Dave Renard

Joan Osborne "How Sweet It Is" (Compendia) ***

The music industry has a hard time figuring out what to do with Joan Osborne.

A woman of remarkable vocal talent, she broke through with a mere pop trifle, the ubiquitous "One of Us" off the folky-blues "Relish" in 1995. After an abortive rock collaboration with Cracker's David Lowery, she belatedly released "Righteous Love" a respectable roots album.

And now, with a collection of classic R&B and roots covers, she heads out for torch-singer territory.

Osborne, who can sing with often unmatched brio, is well-suited enough for the material. "I'll Be Around" and "Why Can't We Live" both benefit from her gusty, throaty delivery.

But she seems to have fallen prey to some flat arrangements along the way. Her languid cover of Aretha Franklin's "Think" offers a more cerebral take on the classic, but you also wonder if she's holding back to avoid comparison to Lady Soul.

Same for "The Weight"; you keep waiting for that hair-raising moment that never comes.

Fortunately, she has too strong a set of pipes to really fail. It's just that you can't help but be tinged with disappointment that she's opting for covers rather than going out and making classic tracks of her own.

— David M. Putney

John Mayer "Inside Wants Out" (Columbia Records) ****

John Mayer, an obscure Atlanta singer-songwriter just a few years ago, has suddenly become the owner of one of the most overplayed songs on the radio, "No Such Thing."

With his sudden surge to mainstream popularity comes the rerelease of his 1999 EP, "Inside Wants Out." Four of its eight songs are acoustic versions of songs found on his breakthrough CD, "Room for Squares." But it's all vintage Mayer: thoughtful pieces about high school, young love and the quandaries of twentysomethings.

In this version of "No Such Thing," it's simply John and his guitar. He's more uncertain — especially when he reaches for the high notes — and far more endearing.

"Quiet" is a beautiful piece about a restless mind on a snowy, still Sunday night: "Somehow I can't seem to find the quiet inside my mind."

"Comfortable," another of the "new" songs, is a sweet ballad about replacing a laid-back, gray-sweat-shirted girlfriend with a more polished, socially acceptable version.

In Mayer's rise to stardom, his older fans might be feeling a similar nostalgia. This album is Mayer before the big concerts, before the VH1 profiles, before he hit the charts. And oh, is it comfortable.

— Brianne Warner

The Blind Boys of Alabama "Higher Ground" (Real World) ****

With "Higher Ground," the Blind Boys come close to equaling last year's lauded "Spirit of the Century."

The new disc abandons last year's rustic acoustic feel, though producer John Chelew, who also helmed "Spirit," appropriately teamed the "lions of gospel" with Robert Randolph and His Family Band. Known as the "Hendrix of the pedal steel," Randolph is a young-buck player who came out of the Pentecostal sacred-steel tradition. He and his band provide a blues-rock foundation that is underlined by John Ginty's church-organ fills, perfect for the singers' gritty and passionate vocals.

Anchored by Fountain's gravel growl and Carter's powerful tenor, the group performs material by Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Cliff, George Clinton and Prince, whose "The Cross" is the album highlight. But surprisingly, it's still the traditional songs like "Wade In the Water" and "Freedom Road" in which the Blind Boys invoke the power of heaven while celebrating the joys of humanity.

Like last year's predecessor, "Higher Ground" is powerful and relevant enough to make even the most hardened secularist don a choir robe and clap. — Eric Feber

Emily Easterly "Cole" (self-released)


Swirls and swishing synth sounds mark this sophomore release from native Richmonder, Emily Easterly. Her deep, breathy whispers and pretty, longing vocals rise and fall with confident honesty, and a little bit of flirtation. Easterly, who studies classical guitar at the University of Miami, recorded "Cole" this summer at Sound of Music studios. The guys at the studio added the retro-guitars on "Bad Luck" and the cool synth sweeps on "Tuesday," but it's Easterly's simple, poignant songs that catch the ear. Look for the album at or Plan 9. Let's hope she'll play in Richmond soon. —


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