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Previewing new albums from Kasey Chambers, Johnny Cash, Freddy Fender, and more.

Thick As A 'Brick'

KaseyFrom the first verse of the first track, Kasey Chambers' sophomore Warner Bros. set, "Barricades & Brickwalls," bursts with passionate songwriting and a singing voice fraught with emotion, yet tough as steel. The 13-track effort weaves the Australian native's soul-searching lyrics through a backdrop of country, blues, and folk musical influences, resulting in a pleasing, hard-to-classify sound.

"Barricades & Brickwalls" is an appropriate follow-up to 1999's "The Captain," which earned worldwide acclaim, most notably the 1999 ARIA (Australian Grammy) Award for best country album and the 2000 ARIA Award for best female artist. Chambers explains, "I think the first album was more about the last 21 years of my life. ["Barricades"] is who I am now and where I'm going. It depicts the different moods of Kasey Chambers."

With help from Lucinda Williams (Chambers' "biggest female role model"), the Living End, Paul Kelly, Matthew Ryan, and Buddy Miller, the set exudes a musical freshness and energy as it delves into themes of insecurity and longing on the one hand and determination and strength on the other. An eight-date North American tour kicks off tonight (Feb. 12) in New York.

'Cash' And Carry

JohnnySony/Legacy celebrates Johnny Cash's 70th birthday with "The Essential," collecting 36 tracks such as "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," and "A Boy Named Sue" (also a No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 hit). Also featured are several notable collaborations -- "Jackson," recorded in 1964 with wife June Carter; "Girl From the North Country," with Bob Dylan in 1969; 1980's "Song of the Patriot" with Marty Robbins; and the fruit of 1993's meeting with U2, "The Wanderer," which appeared on the band's Island set "Zooropa."

The packaging for the birthday set will feature more than 30 testimonials and well wishes to the artist from a diverse list of celebrities, including Willie Nelson, George Jones, Paul McCartney, U2's Bono and the Edge, Shelby Lynne, Leonard Cohen, Keith Richards, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Slipknot's Shawn Crahan and Cory Taylor, Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Al Gore, Nick Cave, and Trisha Yearwood.

On March 12, Columbia/Legacy's "American Milestones" series will expand five classic Cash albums -- 1959's "The Fabulous Johnny Cash," 1959's "Hymns by Johnny Cash," 1960's "Ride This Train: A Stirring Travelogue of America in Song and Story," 1965's "Orange Blossom Special," and 1967's "Carryin' on With Johnny Cash and June Carter." A Cash tribute album, featuring Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Little Richard, is due May 28 through Sony Nashville.

Sweet 'Music'

FreddyOn "La Musica de Baldemar Huerta," veteran Texas crooner Freddy Fender pays homage to the music of his youth, songs he heard growing up in the Rio Grande valley. "Ten [songs] are what you call boleros, mainly from the '50s, and there are a couple from the '40s," Fender says of the 12-song album that features only two English cuts -- "Secret Love" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." Fender says, "'Tear Drops' and 'Secret Love' are the last two songs of the album, country music with mariachi guitars. It's really nice. The rest of them are love songs. I have maybe one that's a fast song, but it's still about love."

Fender says he connected with producers Michael and Ron Morales because they had worked with the Texas Tornadoes, as well as Tornado member Flaco Jimenez. "I did the vocals with just the guitar," Fender says of recording in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. "Then in San Antonio they put harmonies on it, and both Ron and Michael put some more instruments on it. They even put strings and horns, and then the mariachi background. They did one hell of a job."

"La Musica de Baldemar Huerta" was issued in limited release via Studio M Recordings before being picked up by Back Porch/Virgin. The regional release made it eligible to nab the Grammy nomination in the best Latin pop album category. Fender hopes to attend the ceremony as he recovers from recent kidney transplant surgery.

Additional titles hitting stores this week include:

-- singer/songwriter Chris Isaak's "Always Got Tonight" (Reprise).

-- singer/songwriter Oleta Adams' "All the Love" (Pioneer).

-- the soundtrack to the video game "SSX Tricky" (Nettwerk), featuring a K-Rec remix of Run-DMC's "It's Tricky," plus tracks from BT, Mixmaster Mike, Plump DJ's, Hybrid, and Aphrodite.

-- rapper Lil' Keke's "Platinum in Da Ghetto -- Screwed Down" (In The Paint/Koch).

-- the Pat Metheny Group's "Speaking of Now" (Warner Bros.).

-- a collection from late School Of Fish frontman Josh Clayton-Felt, "Spirit Touches Ground" (DreamWorks).

-- veteran folk outfit Fairport Convention's "XXXV" (Compass), featuring new and old material.

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