cds: Now Hear This 

Close your eyes while listening to the acoustic guitar rhythms in "September Grass" and you'll see autumn's colors and smell its essences. Remember the clean chill of the air and the taste of your first kiss at a nighttime football game? He sings what you already know: "I was never the same."

Taylor makes a bit of a political statement, recalling other turbulent decades. In "Belfast to Boston," he says it's "time to lay God's rifle down."

Guest musicians include his daughter Sally, whose mother is Carly Simon. Sally sings harmony on several songs. Guitarist Ry Cooder and sax player Michael Brecker shine on the title track.

Although it seems long ago and far away since we last heard from the Chapel Hill native with Carolina on his mind, Taylor's "October Road" comforts and soothes the soul just as he's done for the past three decades. — Diana Diehl

Nickel Creek "This Side" (Sugar Hill) ****

It's in the bluegrass section. They're on a bluegrass/folk label. One-time fiddle prodigy Alison Krauss produced the record.

Forget all that.

This is a pop record.

How many bluegrass songs have lines like, "I've been thinking long and hard about the things you said to me"?

How many bluegrass singers go "dadadadadada" between lines?

Doesn't matter.

These California kids (brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins and Chris Thile) coax their mandolin, fiddle, bouzouki and guitars to pluck and strum modern-day pop songs. Their playing is so adept that they often approach string-quartet level. Thile's playing on "Sank Like a Stone" is symphonic, and Sara Watkins' voice bounces perfectly off those notes.

Hear the song "Spit on a Stranger" three times, and you'll be singing the refrain later to yourself and wondering where it came from.

Nickel Creek's debut album sold more than 700,000 copies, a blockbuster for a bluegrass/folk CD — if that's what it was.

Bluegrass purists probably won't give a banjo pluck about this record. Those who come from an alt, folk or just-good-music angle will. — Lon Wagner

They Might Be Giants "No!" (Rounder) **

There's a fine line between clever and insufferable. At least that would seem to be the case with They Might Be Giants. After a decade or so as kings of surrealistic geek rock, the duo devolved to joyless self-parody on last year's "Mink Car." Perhaps it was that disk's more adult aspirations. "No!" is a straight-up children's album, and haven't these guys been doing this kind of thing all along?

If you mean mixing a rubbery reality with great pop hooks, then yes, they get about 90 percent there without even trying. Maybe that's why "No!" is good but not particularly inspired.

"Violin" is giggly nonsense, a string of increasingly silly words and classical riffs — the most bizarre stuff they've done in a while.

"Where Do They Make Balloons?" turns the incessant questions of childhood into shimmering Britpop circa 1968, and the title track, a string of forbidden activities, seems to sum up a child's worldview pretty well.

But the most bothersome aspect is the disc's often strained tone — as if performing silly songs for the tots has to be underlined by forced joviality. Of course, the kids probably look past the flaws and love it. But when TMBG bungles an easy home run, you have to wonder what is going on. — David M. Putney

Scarface "The Fix" (Def Jam) ****

In the hip-hop music industry, Scarface represents the South. He represents the streets. And he stays true to both on his latest album.

"The Fix," Face's seventh solo project, is his first album since 2000's "Last of a Dying Breed." He doesn't disappoint on his first effort for Def Jam. The album's first two singles — "Guess Who's Back," featuring Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, and "On My Block" — have already seen plenty of airplay and are just two of many solid tracks.

As he's been doing since he and the Geto Boys came out in 1990, Face keeps it street on this album. "On My Block" is self-explanatory, a song about growing up in Houston. "Keep Me Down," "Safe" and "Sellout" are street joints as well, and the latter two are probably the best tracks on the album.

On "Sellout," Face calls out colleagues who aren't keeping their work real. While no one is mentioned by name, the verbal assault is directed at rappers who change their style just to make a hit.

The album's production, which Face oversees on almost every track, is just as fresh as the lyrics, and while you won't find any party joints on "The Fix," you will find yourself nodding your head.

It gets better with every listen.

— Nick Bowton

Linkin Park "Reanimation" (Warner Bros.) **

First, credit where it's due: In sheer tonnage of units moved, Linkin Park stands alone among recent acts, and it's admirable that they bring along so much talent from the hip-hop underground for this remix record. Guys like Motion Man, Aceyalone and Rasco will be in like Flynn if they capture even a smidgen of the LP's audience.

That said, this disc nowhere near lives up to all the names on the back. Most of these remixes end up sounding like "It's Goin' Down," Linkin Park's collaboration with the X-Ecutioners — basically nondescript modern-rock tracks with decent rhymes and some x-tra-fancy scratching. There are also a few attempts to beef up the original songs into industrial grinders, like on Jay Gordon's "Pts.of.Athrty."

Only "H! Vltg3" (even the titles are remixed) gets a full transformation. Dilated Peoples' Evidence concocts a gritty, piano-driven beat to back up Linkin's resident MC, Mike Shinoda, on one of his better outings, though he still comes off like a little leaguer next to Pharaohe Monch, who sends the next verse out of the park like Sosa.

Bottom line: Even a more hip-hop-heavy Linkin Park is not my cuppa tea. The guests' contributions just don't gel with this beat-driven angst-rock. — Dave Renard



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