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Tom Zé
Estudando o Pagode
Luaka Bop
Tom Zé has always been the odd man out of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement, his dense intellect and taste for off-kilter instrumentation placing him somewhat at odds with more mainstream-friendly crooners such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Zé's latest is one of his most challenging works yet, an ''unfinished operetta" about the historical subjugation of women, told from the perspective of a wide-ranging cast of characters who testify about everything from the similarities between the feminine plight and African slavery to the myth of romantic love. The ideas are heady, and challenging. Interested listeners will need to make regular use of the included booklet, which translates the Portuguese lyrics and adds extensive stage direction and commentary, to flesh out the frequently impenetrable lyrics. The music often outshines the content, with Zé digging deep into his bag of tricks for such surprising sonic frippery as the buzzing-fly string section of album opener ''Ave dor Maria," the neighing-donkey sound effects on ''Estúpido Rapaz," and the angular piano stabs that anchor the bossa nova shuffle of ''Quero Pensar (A Mulher de Bath)." Zé is to be commended for his moral fervor, but it is his musical daring that will likely endear ''Estudando o Pagode" to a new generation of Brazilian-music converts. ESSENTIAL TRACK: ''Pagode-Enredo Dos Tempos Do Medo."
SAMPLE TOM ZÉ Check out audio clips at

Van Hunt
Van Hunt's sophomore disc shows this funky soul singer is in it for the long haul. His overlooked debut was an assured set of flavorful R&B, but this is an even more ambitious and compelling work. While so many neo-soul singers are content to pander to their audience, Hunt continually challenges his. That doesn't make him the easiest sell, but he's forcing folks to pay attention here. Yes, there's no doubt that Hunt owes plenty to Prince (at least he has good taste), and it's most evident here on the opener, ''If I Take You Home," a sweaty affair on which he lets his falsetto shine. The funk on ''Hot Stage Lights" takes its cue from Rick James, but don't mistake Hunt for a derivative clone of his sources. The record is co-produced by the singer with Bill Bottrell, who usually works in a more mainstream vein, and they push some of the songs toward a rock vibe, including the record's most muscular track, ''Ride, Ride, Ride." There's also an oddball cover of the Stooges' ''No Sense of Crime," which sounds nothing like Iggy and company. But that's a good example of Hunt's adventurous nature. He can supply neatly arranged, beautifully sung ballads like ''Daredevil, baby", but he doesn't limit himself to luv-you-up R&B staples. Other than the one cover, Hunt wrote or co-wrote all the songs and plays most of the instruments (besides strings). His singing is colorful, his phrasing is elastic, and the lyrics keep you on your toes with some nasty turns of phrase. The disc could use some trimming -- the overproduced closer ''The Night Is Young" is overkill -- but it proves Hunt is a growing talent firing on all cylinders. ESSENTIAL TRACK: ''Hot Stage Lights."

James Hand
James Hand's music is as hard-core and old school as the honky-tonk variety of country gets. Hand is wont to say that he doesn't write his songs; life writes them, and he just tries to remember the words. Judging by the songs (all from his pen) and the way he sings them on his collection, he's got a vivid memory. Surrounded by the classic, unadorned sound of fiddle and (most of all) pedal steel, he runs through a series of ballads, slow moaners, hard shuffles, and the occasional change-of-pace hillbilly romp. Their mood is captured perfectly by the photo accompanying the liner notes -- Hand sitting at a table with a drink before him and a jukebox behind, head bowed, looking so lonesome he could cry. He sings the songs as if he has lived every minute of them, and his voice expresses a depth and intensity of emotion that is simply breathtaking; with its edge-of-sobbing quaver, there hasn't been as distinctive a vocal instrument in country music since Gary Stewart's careening vibrato. With a release on a national label at the age of 53, after years of playing the bars and roadhouses of his native Texas, the rest of the nation has the chance to find out what aficionados already know: James Hand is a one-of-a-kind purveyor of timeless country music. ESSENTIAL TRACK: ''Baby, Baby, Don't Tell Me That."

Massive Attack
Where do you go after winning a ''Godlike Genius Award" from the British music paper New Musical Express? If you're Massive Attack, from Bristol, England, you put together a compilation like this one that more than justifies the title. As forerunners of what would come to be called trip-hop -- a hypnotic synthesis of electronic beats and dance-floor grooves laced with dub reggae, ethereal vocals, and hip hop-inflected rhymes -- Massive Attack pioneered a modern psychedelic music built by, and for, nocturnal club-dwellers. This new two-CD set (which also includes a DVD compendium of the outfit's videos) is both a terrific starting point for curious newcomers and a seminal survey of a 15-year career that cherry-picks standout tracks from four frequently astounding albums. They're all here: the sleekly soulful ''Safe From Harm"; the subterranean rumble of ''Angel"; the gauzy sonic caverns of ''Teardrop" (featuring a gorgeously gossamer guest vocal by the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser); the hot-wired electric hum of ''Inertia Creeps." Hard-core fans may gravitate toward the newly written R&B-tinged track ''Live With Me," as well as the second disc, a smorgasbord of rare and reworked material, film soundtracks, and collaborations with Madonna and Mos Def. For most listeners, though, the darkly sensuous netherworlds that inhabit disc one is the draw. ''Collected" is an artfully curated exhibit, a lavish overview of the music that made Massive Attack's reputation for taking club soundscapes to a rarefied plane of submersion and escape. ESSENTIAL TRACK: ''Teardrop."

There's something very '70s pomp rock about Elefant's grandiose and theatrical-minded second CD. Though the New York City-based band's 2003 debut, ''Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid," tapped captivatingly into dream pop, the band's live performances were more rock theater, which ''The Black Magic Show" seems tailor-made for. The CD starts promisingly with two catchy rockers, the title track and ''Sirens," which buzz with rich melodies and tantalizing guitar riffs. Singer Diego Garcia emotes vividly, and his lofty, almost Byronic presence is commanding. But the paucity of strong songs sinks him into banality. ''Lolita" culls its storyline from Vladimir Nabokov's novel and locks into a pedantic riff and a silly chorus: ''Lola is on the floor, she's wanting more." Garcia even adds, ''I hear the bedroom calling," a line more worthy of a bodice ripper. The rest of the album descends into soap opera but without the lift of a memorable tune or engaging chorus. ESSENTIAL TRACK: ''Sirens." Elefant plays at the Lansdowne Street Playhouse on May 18.

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