Cat Power, ‘Sun’
The artist who “once wanted to be the greatest” isn’t just imagining it now; she’s living it. The confidence on Cat Power’s first album of original material in six years, self-produced and with beats from Beastie Boys’ producer Philippe Zdar, struts defiance and a life-affirming awakening, rather than the fragility and vulnerability she was living with when she released her 2006 breakthrough “The Greatest.” Now Chan Marshall, her official name, is the guiding light she probably could’ve used a few years back, when dealing with health troubles and the aftermath of a breakup. With a fresh outlook on life and some electro jolts shocking her trademark piano/guitar lushness (and lesbian hair!), she has “Sun,” an exhilarating flood of emotions that pulls from life experiences and a worldview of political-mindedness and social issues. “Ruin” rips into a passive nation of greed, while “Peace and Love,” which intros with an ethereal tone that’s a call-back to her earlier sound, spouts off angrily and triumphantly via a trip-hop beat. The real gem, however, is the youth-empowerment anthem “Nothin’ But Time,” a song that’s so good, so epic – especially as it reaches a liberating climax with Iggy Pop – it never feels as long as its 11 minutes. “It’s up to you to be like nobody,” Power insists. In other words: follow her example. Grade: A-
Little Big Town, ‘Tornado’
One of country’s greatest contemporary bands is done with playing second fiddle to the big dogs: Their fifth album bids for merited mainstream acclaim, without sacrificing the signature sound the Grammy-nominated quartet has established since releasing 2005’s “The Road to Here.” “Pavement Ends,” a raucous rockabilly-fashioned song that kicks off “Tornado,” encourages folks to “let the good times roll.” That’s the plan on “Pontoon,” the lead single that’s become a summer staple with its lazy-day breeziness and sexy innuendo, conjuring up a day on the lake with a beer and some bikini-clad babes. The fun continues during “On Fire Tonight,” an earwormy party song doused in electric guitar and horns that shows the band to be more than just a down-home brand; they’ve got some rock running through them, as the bark of “Front Porch Thing” also demonstrates. They don’t abandon their unrivaled four-part harmonies (how could they?), which have always given them the edge over lesser acts like Lady Antebellum, and “Can’t Go Back” takes full advantage of those. The song’s a standout, falling in line with other melancholy ballads like “Your Side of the Bed,” that reaffirms Little Big Town’s talent shouldn’t just be acknowledged within award-show circles – but everywhere, and by everyone. Grade: B+
Blaqk Audio, ‘Bright Black Heaven’
Davey Havok and Jade Puget of punk-rock band AFI, vocalist and guitarist respectively, take a detour with their side project – a detour that takes them back to the ’80s. The goth-glam throwback comes five years after making their initial venture into synth-pop. “Bright Black Heaven” looks to David Bowie, Erasure and Depeche Mode for a decent run of songs that are casually listenable, but dated so far back that they probably found these tracks in the same closet as their fishnets and leather pants. And that’s not always a bad thing: “The Witness” has the swagger of an Adam Lambert song, and “Cold War” is as heartfelt as Andy Bell asking for a little respect.
Stars, ‘The North’
The hipster darlings known as Stars, a Montreal quintet with six albums to their name, lean heavily on the electro new-wave sound they’ve been toying with, especially on their 2010 album “The Five Ghosts.” “The Theory of Relativity” pops with a synthy effervescence that has Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan tag-teaming a la The Human League on this romantic charmer. Despite some remarkable moments – like “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” and a solo from Milan, “Lights Changing Colour,” that bleeds ’80s nostalgia – the LP slogs in its schmaltzy final third, because, by then, this girl-guy drama is about as tired as they sound.