LITTLE BIG TOWN

Tornado

Producer: Jay Joyce

Capitol Nashville

Release Date: Sept. 11

This co-ed Nashville quartet turned in one of the strongest-and most polished-performances on Lionel Richie's recent country duets album, "Tuskegee", where the group applied its signature vocal harmonies to a lush rendition of "Deep River Woman." But if that appearance emphasized Little Big Town's smooth streak, its new studio album, "Tornado", seems designed to demonstrate that stardom hasn't separated the band from the backwoods roots it famously celebrated in the song "Boondocks." (This despite the sleek young-Hollywood formal wear the members wear on the album's cover.) In opener "Pavement Ends" a drummer counts off the tune Ramones-style before a brisk banjo riff revs to life. Later, "Pontoon" rides a low-slung hip-hop-style beat, while "Front Porch Thing" packs as much fuzz-guitar action as a Kings of Leon cut. Partial credit for the set's rough-and-rumble vibe should probably go to producer Jay Joyce, known for his work with Eric Church and Cage the Elephant. But even when the music mellows, as in "Sober," Little Big Town preserves an air of abandon, singing, "When I die I don't wanna go sober."

DWELE

Greater Than One

Producers: various

RT Music Group/eOne

Release Date: Aug. 28

A go-to for such hip-hop acts as Slum Village ("Tainted"), Kanye West ("Power," "Flashing Lights") and Big Sean ("Celebrity"), Dwele made his initial solo impact with the 2003 single "Find a Way." Now five albums in, Dwele maintains his knack for skillfully balancing traditional and contemporary soul with hip-hop undercurrents without spiraling into triteness. The singer/songwriter revisits his favorite topics -- love and relationships -- through a delectable mix of his own mood-setting compositions and those of well-chosen collaborators. The latter category includes frequent collaborator Mike City, the writer/producer of the set's midtempo lead single and adult R&B hit "What Profit" about love versus material wealth. Another charmer is the cha-cha-vibed "This Love" by Prince Damons. Standouts among Dwele's contributions include the commitment song "Going Leaving" (dedicated to "nostalgic, '80s babies"), his pairing with fellow soulster Raheem DeVaughn on the romance primer "What You Gotta Do" and the cool, atmospheric "Obey." Consistent throughout are the Dwele hallmarks: a sensually mesmerizing tenor winding its way around melodic rhythms and quirky cadences while imparting insightful lyrics about real life.

Divine Fits

A Thing Called Divine Fits

Producer: Nick Launay

Merge Records

Release Date: Aug. 28

The supergroup tag that was quickly affixed to Divine Fits is a bit of a misnomer, as none of the members' bands is exactly in the "super" strata of commerciality. But perhaps that's all for the better, because the teaming of Britt Daniel (Spoon), Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks) and Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) -- with keyboardist Alex Fischel playing no small role -- proves to be a satisfying and natural-sounding collaboration. The group has yielded an album full of edgy but hooky pop songs. Nodding to a variety of new wave and indie pop forebears, A Thing Called Divine Fits leans primarily on spare, synthesizer-dominated arrangements like those of "My Love Is Real," "The Salton Sea," the dreamy "Neopolitans" and the kinetic, kraut rock-styled "Flaggin' a Ride." But they're just part of the story. "Like Ice Cream" lays a propulsive pop melody over a hypnotic vocal loop, while "Civilian Stripes" is rich and slow-building. Producer Nick Launay effectively keeps things from getting cluttered or overdone, a sonic vision that allows Divine Fits to become something greater than the sum of its well-credentialed parts.

BLUES

Ry Cooder

Election Special

Producer: Ry Cooder

Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records

Release Date: Aug. 21

To call the political plaints on "Election Special" "protest songs" would be to erroneously imply a kinship with the '60s sloganeering of Phil Ochs and others. The real precedent is the Depression-era blue-collar balladry of Woody Guthrie, an aesthetic Ry Cooder has been tapping into since the early '70s. Like Cooder's last album, "Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down", "Election Special" is single-mindedly political. But this time, the guitar legend aims directly at issues relevant to the 2012 race for president. The Occupy movement ("The 90 and the 9"), the Republican presidential hopeful ("Mutt Romney Blues") and the controversy over voter ID regulations ("Take Your Hands Off It") are among the topics he takes up. Musically, Cooder keeps things lo-fi and DIY -- the self-produced album contains little more than his own voice, guitar and bass, plus son Joachim's drumming. Cooder remains a consummate blues player and blues tunes dominate, but "Guantanamo" strikes up a vintage Rolling Stones feel for some expertly applied contrast. Whether Cooder's preaching to the converted is for sociologists to decide. Most important: He still wields his axe with precision.

POP

Matthew E. White

Big Inner

Producer: Matthew E. White

Hometapes/Spacebomb Records

Release Date: Aug. 21

Matthew E. White has the heart of Van Morrison and the head of Brian Wilson. The Richmond, Va.-based artist soaks himself in substantial creative ambitions on the seven tracks of debut album "Big Inner", using his Spacebomb consortium -- a rhythm section, orchestra and chorale -- to create rich, soulful and faith-tinged compositions that wear his influences lovingly. We hear Morrison in the languid first single, "One of These Days," and the more uptempo "Steady Pace"; New Orleans eclecticism in the darkly poetic "Big Love"; Curtis Mayfield on the mournful "Gone Away"; Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill on the lush, wintery "Hot Toddies"; and nods to Randy Newman throughout. The album-closing "Brazos" is the set's epic: a travelogue about runaway slaves that muses on civil rights, race relations and spirituality across its 10 minutes of brassy Americana and chanting. White's music is a big bite that requires some time to digest, but the substance and advanced craft of these songs reward the effort.

ROCK

Dispatch

Circles Around the Sun

Producer: Peter Katsis

Bomber Records

Release Date: Aug. 21

The first new Dispatch studio album in a dozen years means a lot to more people than you'd think. After all, the trio -- despite a fiercely independent spirit that made it shy from major labels that courted the band during the '90s -- was popular enough to draw 110,000 fans to a 2004 farewell show. The good news is Dispatch hasn't lost any of its sharp, eclectic charm during the interim. Following a six-song EP last year, "Circles Around the Sun" shoots wide and hits nearly every mark, channeling a broad range of influences, styles and emotional subtexts into a 10-song set that feels like a carefully curated jukebox. The title track boasts a jangly, upbeat blend of punk and Americana and a creepy story worthy of "The Twilight Zone," while "Not Messin'" offers heavy blues-rock and social commentary. "Get Ready Boy" is a jaunty roots gallop, and "Come to Me" is a trippy enough bit of ambient folk blues to make Leonard Cohen proud. Dispatch's rich harmonies are in fine form in the '60s garage pop-referencing "Never or Now." And the closing couplet of "Feels So Good" and "We Hold a Gun" are downtempo delights that complete the band's sweeping aural road journal.

R&B

Jessie Ware

Devotion

Producer: Dave Okumu

Island Records

Release Date: Aug. 21

It's pointless to declare anyone "the next Sade" when the original is still quite active and making some of the best music of her career. But on "Devotion", U.K. newcomer Jessie Ware positions herself as a soul singer in the classic sense by post-'80s standards-her first U.K. single, "Running," elicited many comparisons to the Love Deluxe legend, while the album's emphasis on live guitar, heavy drums and lush electronics (courtesy of the Invisible's Dave Okumu) conjures references to everyone from Annie Lennox to Alicia Keys to early-'90s cult fave Soul II Soul. Ware's personal love of hip-hop materializes in occasionally unexpected ways, too. "No to Love" is a hard-hitting series of melodic vocal loops that nods to J Dilla, while shimmery love song "110%" samples a memorably crude line from Big Punisher ("Carvin' my initials on your forehead") and warps it into something much sweeter. "Wildest Moments," the set's first U.S. single, is a stirring ode to at-times volatile friendships, and "Sweet Talk" is a slinky, doo wop-inspired jam that recalls a late-night lounge band covering Madonna's "Cherish."

Edited by Mitchell Peters (albums).

CONTRIBUTORS: Jim Allen, RJ Cubarrubia, Chuck Dauphin, Gregory R. Gondek, Gary Graff, Andrew Hampp, Jason Lipshutz, Gail Mitchell, Chris Payne, Mikael WoodAll albums commercially available in the United States are eligible. Send album review copies to Mitchell Peters at Billboard, 5700 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 500, Los Angeles, CA 90036 and singles review copies to Jason Lipshutz at Billboard, 770 Broadway, Seventh Floor, New York, NY 10003, or to the writers in the appropriate bureaus.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

Print