ELVIS COSTELLO "The Delivery Man" (Lost Highway) 4 STARS
Despite flooding the market with product, Costello's last bona fide masterpiece was the gorgeous, acid-tinged "Imperial Bedroom" in 1982. For his first effort on the respected Lost Highway label, Costello brings his A game in a set of 13 enduring songs that rank up there with "Almost Blue," "I Want You" and other peaks. The predominant mood is sultry country-soul, the Dusty-in-Memphis sound mimicked so well at times by Shelby Lynne. But Costello doesn't merely approximate, adding inspired, top-notch tunes, jaw-dropping vocal performances and magnificent musicianship from longtime collaborators the Imposters and pedal steel guitarist John McFee (who played on Costello's 1977 debut). A subtle concept album of sorts, "The Delivery Man" deals with the lives of three female characters voiced by Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Spare gems like the beautiful "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" and the Southern soul thriller "Country Darkness" bookend the album's stunning and deeply felt title track inspired by the true-life tale of a man who murdered a childhood friend and confessed 30 years later. Costello has delivered a winner, chilling and unforgettable.JANE MONHEIT "Taking a Chance on Love" (Sony Classical) 4 STARS
With her decidedly nonclassical first outing for Sony, singer Monheit strikes the perfect balance with jazz trio, big band and orchestral settings in a wonderfully voiced collection of standards. That voice is warm, nuanced and confident, delivering humor, sass and romantic pathos in just the right amounts. The instrumentalists are rarely the same from one track to the next, but it all works. "In the Still of the Night" floats on a bossa nova beat, while "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Love Me or Leave Me" swing appropriately. Monheit shines on "Embraceable You," backed only by Romero Lubambo's classical guitar.
CHARLIE HADEN WITH GONZALO RUBALCABA "Land of the Sun" (Verve) 3 1/2 STARS
Following their last album, the Grammy-winning "Nocturne," bassist Haden and pianist Rubalcaba return with another set of deeply felt romanticism. Whereas the previous effort collected Cuban and Mexican boleros, this features Mexican ballads, most of which were written by the late Jose Sabre Marroquin. The music is bittersweet, refined and, above all, melodic. A subtle work of art.
BUDDY MILLER "Universal United House of Prayer" (New West) 4 STARS
Guitar desperado Miller's gospel album offers superb Pentecostal roof-raisers and snake-handling spirituals that truly tremble before God. But that's to be expected. This effort is taken beyond the country church and electric rock arena by a set of insightful, ecumenical soul searchers, anchored by a long, scorched dirge update of Bob Dylan's decidedly nonreligious, anti-war "With God on Our Side."
FELA KUTI "The Underground Spiritual Game" (Quannum) 3 1/2 STARS
With two exceptions, Nigerian musical revolutionary Kuti's music, thankfully, has remained unmolested by remixers, hip-hop DJs and sampling engineers over the years. A few years ago, an AIDS benefit album misguidedly paid tribute by allowing some big names to render Kuti's originals completely unrecognizable. The same year, New York's Masters at Work remix team pulverized a 12-minute Fela workout into a five-minute disco production. But by some miracle, this new set's mix-master Chief Xcel (from West Coast rap duo Blackalicious) gets it right. Using 11 somewhat obscure Kuti numbers, Xcel weaves a seamless hour-plus piece (for DJ Shadow's Quannum imprint) that undulates like a fine symphony designed for syncopated guitar lines .
Album scale: 1 STAR (poor) to 4 STARS (excellent)