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Previewing albums from Ani DiFranco, Sofie Von Otter/Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Slimm Calhoun, Shaver, and more.o

A Force To 'Reckon' With

After two years without a new album, Ani DiFranco will release the two-disc "Revelling/Reckoning" this week on her own Righteous Babe label. DiFranco's 13th full-length project introduces listeners to a somewhat new style. "Revelling," the first disc, combines groovy, bluesy sounds throughout its 13 tracks, while the 16 songs on "Reckoning" are slower, almost quiet.

Initially, the project was just going to be a single disc, but a flood of ideas spawned a whole new program's worth of material. "When the album was just one disc," DiFranco says, "it was going to be 'Reckoning.' I think of the image of the girl reckoning with herself and the sort of macrocosm of a society reckoning with itself at the end of a century. Then there was the idea of reveling even within that struggle."

"My original intention was that the 'Revelling' record would just be danceable," she continues. "I think of it more now as the record in which I revel in being a musician. There are different incarnations of my writing on it, everything from my basis of guitar and voice to improvised instrumental stuff and spoken-word."

Costello & Von Otter Head 'For The Stars'

"For the Stars" (Deutsche Grammophon) is a remarkable collaboration between new wave icon Elvis Costello and the distinguished Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter.

The album -- on which Von Otter interprets a broad swath of material occasionally accompanied by Costello, who produced and arranged the entire record -- eschews the classical crossover syndrome in two fundamental aspects. It could by no means be described as a mainstream pop project, and far from being some record-company contrivance, it's the result of a long, measured process by which these dons of different disciplines became confidants and then co-workers.

In his catalytic role, Costello nurtures Von Otter's subtle interpretations of songs by the Beach Boys and the Beatles at one end of the scale and Tom Waits and the Fleshquartet at the other, with material by Costello, Ron Sexsmith, Anna McGarrigle, and even ABBA pitched intriguingly in between. It is a formula as sure to fascinate the musically catholic as it is to confound dedicated followers of convention.

What's 'The Skinny'?

If you don't already know "The Skinny" on newcomer Slimm "Cutta" Calhoun, you will this week. That's when his aptly titled debut album "The Skinny" finally drops on Aquemini/Elektra after being postponed back in October. The 15-song set is the first release from the Outkast-established Aquemini and features the single "It's OK," which hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart last November.

"The Skinny" offers a colorful array of hip-hop, accented with influences ranging from reggae to salsa. Because the music isn't trendy and the lyrics document never-ending life dramas, any of the songs could have been recorded nearly a decade ago. The will be on tour with Outkast through an April 30 date in New York.

What Would 'God' Say?

Monster Magnet leader Dave Wyndorf says he wanted the creative process for the group's fifth set, "God Says No" (A&M), to differ from that used for the band's past albums. His wish was granted, but not as he imagined. "For the last couple records, I waited until the last minute and then crazily wrote the record," he says. "This time, I thought that I may actually get different [songs] if I give myself some time to do it."

But after filling notebooks with "volumes of stuff I wanted to sing about," Wyndorf's car was broken into, and a bag containing everything he'd written was stolen. "Losing it sent everything into total nosedive," he says with a sigh. With studio time already booked, Wyndorf had to start over-and he only had a week to pull things together. "It was probably one of the worst weeks of my life," he recalls.

But it worked, as the set's 13 tracks are refreshing, inspired, and focused, offering a compelling mix of Wyndorf's punk-, psychedelic-, and classic-rock roots.

'Rolling' On

Anticipation was already high for "The Earth Rolls On," the sixth album from Shaver -- the duo of highly regarded singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and his son Eddy, whom many hold in equally high esteem as a country/blues guitar slinger. But the focus shifted, however undeservedly, when Eddy died Dec. 31, 2000, of a suspected heroin overdose at age 38. Regardless, the New West album represents some of the father and son's best work.

"Earth" ranges from raucous roadhouse romps ("Leavin' Amarillo," "Hard-Headed Heart") and blues rave-ups ("Sail of My Soul") to tender ballads ("Star of My Heart," "Evergreen"), all boasting Billy Joe's signature insightful lyrics and rough-hewn vocals, with blistering guitar runs from Eddy. The songs were all written by Billy Joe, save for the hard-hitting "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" -- an instance of no-holds-barred father/son interplay co-written by Eddy, who also sings.

'Parting' Ways

A more mature, confident Nick Cave is revealed on the group's 11th studio set, "No More Shall We Part," due this week on Reprise. In a change, the album's songs were recorded in real-time, with Cave performing alongside his band, the Bad Seeds. Contemporary folk singers Anna and Kate McGarrigle also lend their voices to the set, with vocals that Cave says are "painfully beautiful, so fragile and unobtrusive."

Although Cave's subject matter has deepened with each subsequent album, the singer remains, by his own admission, "musically and lyrically ... chained to the same bowl of vomit," for which he does not apologize. "There aren't that many themes in the world," he stresses. "There's love and death, God, and some variations of that."

Additional albums hitting stores this week include the first album in more than five years from indie rock storytellers Red House Painters, "Old Ramon" (Sub Pop); New York glam revivalists Spacehog's "The Hogyssey" (Artemis); German instrumentalists Couch's "Profane" (Matador); an album of original versions of songs later made famous by Garth Brooks, "In the Beginning: A Songwriter's Tribute to Garth Brooks" (VFR); modern rock act Minibar's debut album "Road Movies" (Universal); the solo debut from ex-Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips, "Abulum" (Brick Red); a concert album from Primus frontman Les Claypool's Frog Brigade, "Live Frogs - Set 1" (Prawn Song); country act Charlie Robison's third album, "Step Right Up" (Lucky Dog/Columbia); the soundtrack to the film "Calle 54," featuring tracks by Paquito D'Rivera and Tito Puente (Blue Note); a new album from eclectic indie pop band Of Montreal, "Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies; A Variety of Whimsical Verse" (Kindercore); and the benefit album "Concerts for a Landmine Free World Volume 1," featuring performances from Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle (Vanguard).

Also out this week is hard rock outfit Nebula's "Charged" (Sub Pop); country veterans the Statler Brothers' "Showtime" (Music Box); U.K. rock trio Mojave 3's "Out of Tune" (4AD/Beggars Banquet); a fresh round of two Beach Boys albums combined on single-CD packages, "Concert/Live in London"; "Friends/20/20"; "Party/Stack O' Tracks"; "Smiley Smile/Wild Honey" (EMD); reissues of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Open Our Eyes" and "Spirit" (Columbia/Legacy); and a concert set from the late Roy Orbison, "Live at Austin City Limits (August 5, 1982)" (Orbison Records)..


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