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Previewing new albums from Wilco, Elvis Costello, Paul Westerberg, Kenny Chesney, Pet Shop Boys, and more.

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WilcoConsidering all the label drama that has engulfed Wilco and its fourth studio album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," during the past year, it's a bit surprising to hear frontman Jeff Tweedy equate the experience to "the stars aligning." Yet it makes sense, as he outlines how the revered act's relationship with its former label, Reprise, gradually deteriorated before finally ending last year. Seen by many as one of the most important bands of its era, Wilco was quietly dropped from Reprise about 10 months ago, shortly after turning in the now-acclaimed "Yankee."

What's more, the band's dismissal from Reprise came during a year that also saw it undergo massive lineup changes, "Yankee" being leaked on the Internet, and the album's entire saga caught on "I'm Trying to Break Your Heart," a documentary film on the making of the record that is slated to arrive in theaters this summer.

The set, mixed by indie rock veteran Jim O'Rourke, finds the band further expanding its boundaries, this time focusing more on the tension in Tweedy's voice amid the spare, '60s psychedelic influence of tracks like "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You." Says multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who exited the band last year, "It's kind of a blur because we threw so much at the wall and sort of sifted through so much of it that when you combine all these sounds, you start to forget what made the sound. That was kind of the idea." Wilco will be on tour in North America and Europe this summer.

'Cruel,' In 'Stereo'

ElvisWelcome back to the only new-wave hero whose last record was with a mezzo-soprano and whose next project is "a 200-page score written with a pencil." Between these projects, Elvis Costello is rockin' again. Not that he cares to use the word "rock" to describe "When I Was Cruel," due this week on Island. Costello says, "Some people might think that because this record has two [members of his former band, the] Attractions on it [keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas], it must naturally be the successor to [1986's] 'Blood & Chocolate.' But it's not in any way rooted in the past."

"When I Was Cruel" introduces strident basslines by new band member Davey Faragher, the effective use of a one-word sample (a device Costello had previously eschewed) by 1960s Italian singer Mina on "When I Was Cruel No. 2," and some distinctively devilish word games. "There was a great liberty offered by this record," says Costello, now happily living in Dublin. "I recorded much of it at home, with an idiot box of rhythm. I already knew how it should go, because I planned to make the record in 2000. But the company never seemed stable enough to risk it. In the end, it gave me more time to write it."

Another singer/songwriter icon returning to the spotlight this week is former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, who issues a two-CD set on Los Angeles independent label Vagrant that spans both sides of his musical personality. The package is to be set up as a single-disc Westerberg solo album, featuring first and foremost a collection of acoustic-leaning songs titled "Stereo." Inside will be an entire new album from his more rock-oriented side project, Grandpaboy, titled "Mono."

"One [style] always inspires the other," he continues. "As soon as I play with an acoustic guitar and sing a song where there's lyrics where I want you to hear the words, I get that out of my system. And my next instinct is to strap on one of my old, noisy guitars and pound out one that makes me sweat. So it's kind of a yin and yang thing." Westerberg is on a short tour of U.S. record stores and may go on the road with a full band later this year.

Sensible 'Shoes'

ChesAfter eight years of developing his career the slow and steady way, Kenny Chesney finally seems to be poised on the brink of major stardom. "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems," his first BNA studio album in three-and-a-half years, has already spawned a major country hit for the single "Young," and Chesney has lined up an extensive summer tour that will keep him on the road through the end of August.

"I've lived a lot in those three-and-a-half years," Chesney says, "and this album reflects the growth I've done as a person. I think people will see me for the first time as an open book." The set includes the feel-good title track, written by Casey Beathard, and Chesney's cover of Bruce Springsteen's "One Step Up."

Chesney says the latter "has always been one of those songs I thought could be a country record, but I always felt it was untouchable. I've wanted to record it for a number of years, but I felt like people wouldn't take me seriously if I did." He says what has changed is that "I finally feel like I've lived it."

Sweet 'Release'

My PetPet Shop Boys principals Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded their eighth studio album, "Release," at the former's home studio, located in Durham in the north of England. According to Tennant, "It's the kind of place where you're not in the middle of some kind of scene." In such back-to-basics surroundings free of outside influences, Lowe declared that he didn't want to make a dance record, Tennant recalls. "Chris simply said, 'Let's just make a Neil and Chris record -- one with personal lyrics and strong melodies.' So that's what we set out to do."

Arriving this week via Sanctuary but out since April 1 internationally, the self-produced "Release" overflows with pure pop sensibilities but is without dance elements. "This is a Pet Shop Boys album, after all," Tennant says with a chuckle. The set, which features contributions from ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and percussionist Jody Linscott, finds Tennant and Lowe placing more emphasis on the songs and less on production. "Production was a bit simpler," Tennant acknowledges. "We've been known to overproduce at times, but not this time.

"With this album, we wanted to bring out the meanings of the songs," he continues. "It was the first time Chris put chord changes down on guitar. And usually, the guitar is verboten by Chris in the studio. This gave the overall sound more space and kept things more focused." The group kicks off an extensive international tour May 14 in Miami.

Nuts And 'Bolt'ons

BoltedVeteran pop vocalist Michael Bolton hopes to relaunch his career with the release this week of "Only a Woman Like You," his first album of totally new material since 1998 and his debut for Jive. The title track hit No. 9 last week on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart, marking Bolton's first top-10 AC hit since "The Best of Love" hit No. 5 in February 1998.

"This attitude of a fresh face or sound is purposely avoiding the last thing I'd want to do -- which is reinvent the wheel or try to be the older 'N Sync guy, the male Britney. It's never going to happen," Bolton says with a laugh. "But, I expect this will be my audience's favorite record since 'Time, Love and Tenderness.' I'm hoping that the material draws them in but doesn't leave them saying, 'What the heck is he doing?' My guess is they're going to know, and they are going to love where I've gone, and in the process we are going to make new fans."

Additional titles hitting stores this week include:

-- Rapper Q-Tip's "Kamaal the Abstract" (Arista).

-- Eclectic U.K. duo Cornershop's "Handcream for a Generation" (Beggars Banquet), featuring a guest spot from Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher.

-- Goodie Mob rapper Cee-Lo's "Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections" (Arista) and Three 6 Mafia rapper Project Pat's "Layin' Da Smack Down" (Loud).

-- New albums from indie rock veterans Luna ("Romantica," Jetset) and the Promise Ring ("Wood/Water," Anti).

-- U.K. electronic/rock outfit Sneaker Pimps' "Bloodsport" (Tommy Boy).

-- Acclaimed singer/songwriter Badly Drawn Boy's "About a Boy" soundtrack (XL/Beggars Banquet).

-- Modern rock act 12 Stones' self-titled Wind-Up debut.

-- Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's "Chelsea Walls" soundtrack (Rykodisc).

-- The Epic soundtrack to "The New Guy," featuring tracks from Mystikal, Green Day, and Eve 6.

-- The soundtrack to "Human Nature," featuring the music of Graeme Revelle (Plexi Music).