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Tracking the new sounds of the season

Fall brings a flurry of interesting CDs

We're only two weeks into fall, and perhaps already you've fallen behind the rush of new albums. From Reba to Devendra, here's your chance to catch up.

Keyshia Cole
"Just Like You" (Geffen)

Keyshia Cole's street edge sets her apart from her polished R&B peers, but the Oakland, Calif., songstress could have used a good editor on her second album, which is bogged down by too many ballads and overly lush production. But even though "Just Like You" doesn't match the raw, anthemic power of her 2005 debut, "The Way It Is," Cole's a singer to be reckoned with, particularly in an urban market saturated with imitators. Scorned women are her muse, and with help from guests like Missy Elliott, T.I., Diddy, and Anthony Hamilton, Cole brings the turbulence of troubled relationships to vivid life. (Joan Anderman)

Devendra Banhart
"Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon" (XL)

Devendra Banhart, freak-folk's phantasmagorical godfather, has left his no-fi, four-track ways behind and made the leap to pleasing production values. But he remains a true eccentric. Banhart recorded his fifth full-length disc in a secluded home studio in the hippie hideaway of Topanga Canyon, Calif., and as the album title's thinly veiled references to rolling and smoking imply, let's just say he inhaled. This trippy collection spans Brazilian Tropicalia, '60s psychedelia, classic rock, blissed-out pop, gospel, and a new genre that might be called Hebrew doo-wop - a ridiculous range of styles, but one that works under Banhart's expansive, expressive umbrella. (J.A.)

José González
"In Our Nature" (Peacefrog)

The Swedish-Argentine troubadour's second collection of indie-pop songs hews closely to the delicate, austere sound he established on 2005's "Veneer." González does flesh out his stripped-down, voice-guitar approach with the subtlest of embellishments on the new album - a hint of percussion, delicate harmony vocals, occasional synthesizer - and he anchors his cryptic lyrics with a handful of (comparatively) overt political statements. But despite the fuller arrangements the whole package remains haunting: pristine on the surface with an uneasy core. (J.A.)

Foo Fighters
"Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace" (RCA)

With their sixth studio effort, Foo Fighters have delivered the "mature" album, which isn't as dreaded a development as it sounds. Dave Grohl and company have assembled a strong assortment of the band's familiar, well-built tuneage, from muscular rockers and sinuous ballads to good-natured power-pop and riff-heavy radio anthems. Everything comes drenched in hooks, except for Grohl's folky, finger-picked instrumental duet with Kaki King. It's the only real left-field moment on a disc with appealing range but not much momentum. (J.A.)

Reba McEntire
"Duets" (MCA Nashville)

The trouble with Reba McEntire's "Duets" is clear from the back cover. Instead of listing titles, the 11 spaces read "Reba & . . ." Even though the country superstar attracted formidable partners, from serious (LeAnn Rimes, Vince Gill) to popular (Justin Timberlake, Kenny Chesney), the songs should be as important as the singers. So the ballad-heavy "Duets" has a couple of gems, including the devastatingly simple Trisha Yearwood collaboration, "She Can't Save Him." It has a few decent tunes amplified by great singers, like Kelly Clarkson soaring on her own "Because of You." And pretty much everything else is interesting only because of who's behind the microphone. It takes more than two to make it right in this equation. (Sarah Rodman)

Chaka Khan
"Funk This" (Burgundy)

If you ever feel maligned to the point of speechlessness, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige have your back. On Khan's dynamite "Funk This," the supremely soulful pair throw down on "Disrespectful," a banger that will get even the most triflin' man from foolishness to apology in no time. That song alone would be worth the price of admission, so it's a genuine pleasure to report that Khan is back in fighting form on this collection of new tunes and choice covers. In addition to the jittery duet with Blige, Khan reminisces over some greasy Southern soul on "Back in the Day" and evokes her Rufus roots with "Hail to the Wrong." The covers are equally spot-on with Khan feeling for Prince again with a slippery, funky run though the classic "Sign o' the Times." (S.R.)

"In Our Bedroom After the War" (Arts and Crafts International)

If it's possible for a band to be too tasteful, then Stars is that band. The Canadian collective led by Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan writes beautiful songs, dresses them up in sumptuous baroque-pop arrangements (strings, accordions, melodicas), and sings them with soothing harmonies. Glimpses of influences from Morrissey to Broadway musicals to other boy-girl bands like the Beautiful South and the Human League abound in these tales of true, unrequited, and broken love. But as pretty as all of the proceedings are - right down to the elegant bound packaging - the overall feel is of Sunday brunch music that goes down easy but rarely quickens the pulse. (S.R.)

Various Artists
"Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino" (Vanguard)

A single-disc tribute to the ambassador of New Orleans rock 'n' roll would've been a lovely proposition, but this two-disc love letter is an embarrassment of riches. Almost everyone brings their A-game, from Art Neville's plaintive "Please Don't Leave Me" to Robert Plant's gloriously understated "It Keeps Rainin'." And even the ones who aren't revelatory exude genuine love for the Fat Man and prove that if a song is strong enough, it can overcome an underwhelming performance. If Hurricane Katrina, during which Domino went missing, was a painful reminder of all we have to lose culturally from one of our most deeply musical cities, "Goin' Home" is a blessed side effect. And if it encourages listeners new to Domino to seek out his back catalog, then all the better. Additionally, proceeds from the album will benefit Tipitina's Foundation, which is working to improve post-Katrina conditions in the Lower Ninth Ward Domino calls home. (S.R.)

Gloria Estefan
"90 Millas" (Burgundy)

If any of Gloria Estefan's albums have warranted a sequel, it's "Mi Tierra," a 1993 valentine to her native Cuba that has since become a classic. The Spanish-language "90 Millas," which refers to the 90 miles that separate Cuba from the United States, picks up where that album left off. With star-studded cameos (including Paquito d'Rivera, Carlos Santana, and Cachao), Estefan once again paints her homeland in brilliant and assorted shades - sometimes romantic ("Bésame"), usually vibrant ("Píntame de Colores"), and always festive ("A Bailar"). The centerpiece is "Esperando (Cuando Cuba Sea Libre)." Given the impending changes that await the nation without Fidel Castro, the refrain of "Cuando Cuba sea libre/ Vamo' a celebrar" ("When Cuba is free/ We're going to celebrate") feels especially pointed and poignant. (James Reed)

Rascal Flatts
"Still Feels Good" (Lyric Street)

With its fifth studio release, Rascal Flatts has the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 charts this week, and it's easy to see why: This is slick, keenly produced country that dips its spurs into everything from power ballads ("Help Me Remember") to '70s rock ("Winner at a Losing Game"). Variety, of course, doesn't always ensure quality. At its best, "Still Feels Good" is a fantastic record for commercial country radio - fun, exuberant, and broad; at its worst, it doesn't exactly blaze new ground for this denim-clad Nashville trio. But with so many key ingredients, instructions on how to enjoy the CD ("Bob That Head"), and a surprisingly good duet with Jamie Foxx on "She Goes All the Way," just add a party and shake. (J.R.)

Meshell Ndegeocello
"The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams" (Decca)

The name of singer-bassist Meshell Ndegeocello's latest is a provocative title for an album that's nearly inscrutable. It's untamed, topsy-turvy, elliptical - and one of the most exciting albums I've heard all year. With guest contributions from jazz players Robert Glasper and Pat Metheny and Malian singer Oumou Sangare, Ndegeocello careens into the fringes of soul, R&B, rock, and jazz - often to bewildering results, starting with the propulsive "The Sloganeer: Paradise." On "Michelle Johnson," a cosmic bit of Betty Davis-style '70s funk, Ndegeocello explains, "I'm just a soul on the planet/ I'm trying to do good/ Be good/ Feel good." Even in her low-key moments ("Shirk"), she's probing and searching for answers to what that album title could mean. (J.R.)

Melissa Etheridge
"The Awakening" (Island)

From a battle with breast cancer to winning an Oscar in February for her song in "An Inconvenient Truth," it's been a trying but triumphant past few years for Melissa Etheridge. Her celebratory new album reflects those times with some of her most compelling songwriting in years (particularly "Map of the Stars") cast in her usual power-rock framework. But there are a few clunkers here, too. Songs like the generic rocker "Threesome," in which she declares, "I don't wanna have a threesome/ I don't wanna sleep with nobody else," are beneath her. Sprinkled throughout the album are short interludes from the John Lennon school of affirmation: "God is in the people" and "all we can really do is love one another." (J.R.)

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