For the Record: Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Hicks, Buddy and Julie Miller

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Records are rated on a scale of one (awful) to four (classic) stars:

POP/ROCK

KELLY CLARKSON 'All I Ever Wanted' (19 Recordings/RCA)


3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

Kelly Clarkson's 2007 album, "My December," was overshadowed by widely publicized record label struggles over creative control, but that wasn't its biggest problem.

Some catchier songs would have been enough to make the gossipy distractions go away. On "All I Ever Wanted," the original American Idol's fourth album, the singer is apparently happier. More important, the songs do more to highlight Clarkson's most appealing traits -- and there are plenty.

The opening one-two punch of "My Life Would Suck Without You" and "I Do Not Hook Up" are the frisky, hook-laden pop songs that never go out of style.

The former, written by a team that includes teen-pop songsmith Max Martin, doesn't veer much from the "Since U Been Gone" template. Katy Perry shares songwriting credit on the latter, which leans a smidge toward Clarkson's rockier side. It still comes with a killer chorus wrapped around the title.

Some of the initial energy is sapped in the melodramatic "Cry," a monster ballad that takes Clarkson into extremely sappy territory. Fortunately, even with a boatload of strings and other production, her voice still manages to sound pretty. In such moments, she can be shrill.

"Cry" is one of half a dozen songs that Clarkson assisted in writing. Lyrically, her takes on love aren't too unique or enlightening ("Remember all the things we wanted," she sings in "Already Gone." "Now all the memories are haunted.")

Listening, however, is a guilty pleasure, whether it's the predictable radio-friendly pop of "If I Can't Have You" or the more inventive fun of "Ready" or "I Want You."

Clarkson sounds like she's having a good time here, and it's infectious.

-- Jim Abbott, The Orlando Sentinel

TAYLOR HICKS 'The Distance' (Modern Whomp Records)


2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained

Fifth season "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks suffered the usual "Idol" indignity: Win the show and rush-release a mediocre major-label album. Then get dropped. Hicks returns as an independent artist with "The Distance" and ... it's not bad.

It gets off to a decent, if slick, start. The title song and "What's Right Is Right" sound like tracks that would have fit well on Doobie Brother Michael McDonald's first solo album in 1982. (They are also preferable to McDonald's current career of regurgitating tired old Motown songs.)

Even better, the shuffling "Seven Mile Breakdown" is a track well worth slapping on your iPod. These keepers make up for the "Achy Breaky Heart" rip-off, "Keeping It Real" (the verses are almost identical to the polarizing Billy Ray Cyrus single of 1992), the sentimental "Nineteen" and the album's overall lack of edge and grit.

Ultimately, though, Hicks is limited by his vocals. He can sing and in doses exhibits some soul and chops. The problem is he tends to perform every song in the same tone. "Wedding Day Blues," for example, Hicks' tale of stealing the bride (his ex) from the groom at the reception calls out for a snarky lead vocal, but Hicks is straightforward. Great artists can bring flair and a distinct persona to stylized tracks like that, and Hicks falls well short of greatness.

-- Howard Cohen, McClatchy Newspapers

... AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD 'The Century of Self' (Richter Scale)


3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

With some legitimacy you could call the nervy Texans in ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead the first blog band. Before Lily Allen, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, MySpace, or blogs themselves, AYWKUBTOD blessed and cursed their epic brand of guitar-indie with an ungodly long name and album covers more suited to Dead Sea Scrolls or 12-sided die games.

Then they loosed a batch of their best tunes with the prophetic title "Source Tags and Codes" and erupted at a time when it was being realized that Napster wasn't just for snapping up Slim Shady. Ah, the days. Seven years and at least four releases later, the band resides in discarded hype purgatory. 2004's Worlds Apart traded Sonic Youth squall-and-jangle for shiny MTV2 bombast and longer travails, and 2006's "So Divided" folded in catchy baroque experiments that bordered on a Sgt. Pepper's acid trip. Both were somewhat overly maligned by the source-tag-and-code culture that created them, seemingly bent on proving it can destroy them, too.

But don't hate them just because the "The Century of Self" is more of the same, tuneful bombast that never quite outrocks its foggy haze or successfully obscures its guitar-piano-and-even-synth anthems in disguise. Conrad Keely still yowls like Ian MacKaye awaiting a strep test, with an abiding chorale of Keelettes on backup bellowing in tow. The band continues jubilantly to work up a half-hooky dust cloud, never quite deciding whether to go to heaven or hell. Maybe purgatory?

-- Dan Weiss, McClatchy

COUNTRY

BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER 'Written in Chalk' (New West)


3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

"Written in Chalk" is only the second album to carry the names of both Buddy and Julie Miller, although the stunning sets these husband-and-wife singer-songwriters have released under their individual names are also close collaborations. This is another high-quality effort from the first couple of Americana, though it doesn't pack quite the overall punch of their earlier work, including 2001's "Buddy and Julie Miller."

Buddy's in top form with his honky-tonk/soul amalgam on such tracks as "Gasoline and Matches," Mel Tillis' "What You Gonna Do Leroy" (a duet with Robert Plant) and "One Part, Two Part," and a seductively bluesy duet with Julie, "Smooth." Julie sounds as fragile as ever, but the numbers she sings lead on -- spare acoustic ballads wracked with hurt -- vary little in style and mood, and drag the album down a bit as they fall short of her usual haunting power.

--Nick Cristiano, McClatchy

CLASSICAL

Mozart: Masonic Music Kassel Spohr Chamber Orchestra (Naxos)


3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

This disc contains some of Mozart's most gorgeous and least-known music. Mozart espoused Freemasonry as an alternate to the Catholic church (which had treated him badly in his native Salzburg), as well as for its Enlightenment philosophy that social class was not related to nobility of spirit. Mozart's grandest tribute to Freemasonry was in "The Magic Flute," and much of the music contained here might be construed as sketches for the nobler passages -- the music of Sarastro and the priests -- in that opera.

The works are mostly vocal, from simple Lieder (German songs) with piano to more elaborate cantatas with chorus and orchestra, according to what combination of performers was available in the lodge at any particular time. The extended aria for tenor, "Mason's Joy" is particularly appealing. Among the instrumental pieces, the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor (K. 546) was adapted from an early 2-piano piece, while the Masonic Funeral Music must stand as one of the composer's most profound outpourings.

The Kassel Spohr Chamber Orchestra under Roberto Paternostro, is first rate, the vocal soloists, led by tenor Heo Young-Hoon, only adequate.

-- Robert Croan, Post-Gazette senior editor



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