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Byline: Jonathan Takiff
March comes on like a musical lion with big CD releases by Jennifer Lopez, Al Green, Judas Priest, Matt Bianco with Basia, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Doe, Moby and Beck.
GIRL POWER: J.Lo evokes her innocent (and lost) romantic youth on "Rebirth" (Epic). The set starts up in monochromatic hip-hop mode with "Get Right" and the cooing "Hold You Down" (featuring some reverent rap/singing by Fat Joe), then blossoms melodically with the bubble-pop sexuality of "Cherry Pie" and "Ryde or Die." The melodrama rises with the innocence of "Still Around," teary self-denial song "He'll Be Back" and Euro-styled schlock pop of "(Can't Believe) This Is Me." B
SOUNDTRACKED: If the animated flick "Robots" is just half as lively as the soundtrack album, it's gonna be a smash. The Virgin set boasts an eclectic, super-fresh collection of nu soul (Ricky Fante, Stacie Orrico), pop 'n' punk (Fountains of Wayne, Fatboy Slim, Steriogram), hip-hop (Chingy's smash "Right Thurr") and old-school funk from War, James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire (the latter's new track, "Love's Dance"). B+
TWANG TIME: Canada's distinctively blunt, dark, alt-country portrait artist Kathleen Edwards takes prisoners with a passion on "Back to Me" (Zoe/Rounder). Roots rockin', this snarly, sensual, anti-social and sarcastic music grows on you like a fungus. A-
Shooter Jennings, offspring of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, goes his own, twang rockin' way with "Put the O Back in Country" (Universal South.) B+
Jamie O'Neal does the mainstream country pop thing well on "Brave" (Capitol). With material largely written by Alexander and glossily produced by Keith Stegall, this one could appeal to fans of both Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. Check out the references to Bruce Springsteen on "Naive" and the heart-rending ballad, "When Did You Know." B
Rootsy newcomer Jessi Alexander sounds like a cross between a young Linda Ronstadt and Karla Bonoff on her debut, "Honeysuckle Sweet" (Columbia). Try "This World Is Crazy." B+
Big Kenny (of Big & Rich fame) breaks loose on "Live a Little" (Hollywood).
MORE LASSES IN A ROW: Four sweet young Irish voices and a lively young violinist collaborate on the concert CD and DVD "Celtic Woman," available on Manhattan and coming to a PBS station near you. B
Lily Holbrook's genteelly tortured sound may hold some appeal to fans of Tori Amos and Jewel. Tellingly, the standout track on "Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt" (Back Porch) is her cover of Ozzy Osbourne's "Mama, I'm Coming Home." B-
Julie Gold (of "From a Distance" fame) shares "Girl I Found" (Gadfly).
Russian-born eccentric Regina Spektor swoops in with "Soviet Kitsch" (Sire), an ultra-personable, playfully off-kilter set in the Bjork and Nellie McKay vein. You'll either love or hate this smart-ass. Packs a bonus DVD. B
EVERGREENS: Al Green gets back to Memphis soul/rock 101 on "Everything's OK" (Blue Note). Produced and arranged by his veteran colleague Willie Mitchell, some of the early track vocals (like his take on "You Are So Beautiful") sound literally phoned-in. But Al rallies and saves the day on late-set originals "I Wanna Hold You" and "Another Day." B+
Soul/gospel legend Solomon Burke is alive and well and keeping it real on "Make Do With What You Got" (Shout! Factory), putting his distinctive pipes and moral tone on songs by Bob Dylan ("What Good Am I?"), Robbie Robertson ("It Makes No Difference"), Van Morrison ("At the Crossroads") and Hank Williams ("Wealth Won't Save Your Soul"). Soul-savant Don Was helmed the project and lead guitarist Ray Parker Jr. keeps it cooking. A-
NU SOUL: Amos Lee makes a subtle-yet-commanding self-titled debut set for Blue Note. Composed as well as sung by Amos, his folk-soul music oozes with warmth, intimacy and good humor. The production has been finessed by producer Lee Alexander and his colleagues in the Norah Jones band (herself included). Try "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight," the classic soul evoking "Arms of a Woman" and the bouncing back wit of "Bottom of the Barrel." B+
Manchester, England, trio the Doves make room for a little Motown ("Black and White Town") and Beach Boys ("Someday Soon") flavor in their nice package of Northern soul rock and ballads on "Some Cities" (Capitol). B
Larry Kirwan puts his Black 47 band through another set of raucous and righteous Celtic soul on "Elvis Murphy's Green Suede Shoes" (Gadfly), companion to Kirwan's newly published memoir of the same name. B
Usher auditions for Hollywood with the mini-DVD movie "Rhythm City Volume One: Caught Up" (BMG Video).
STILL ROLLING: The ex-Rolling Stones bassist and pals like Albert Lee, Georgie Fame and Chris Stainton work out as Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings on "Just For A Thrill" (Fuel). It's a good-time, time-warped session mixing vintage boogie woogie and finger-snapping blues songs like "Roll "Em Pete" and "Down Home Girl," soul party classics ("That's How Heartaches Are Made," "Booty Ooty"), plus new material (co-authored by Wyman) in the old-school styles. Two from the Ray Charles catalog - "Hit the Road Jack" and"Georgia on My Mind" - cap the set. B+
SURF'S UP: British nu-soul export Craig David sings acoustic versions of his hits in a glorious rain forest on "Live in Costa Rica _ Music in High Places" (Rhino DVD).
Surfer dude Jack Johnson throws another slab of beach-party-funky folk on the bonfire "In Between Dreams" (Universal).
COOL BREEZES: Welsh singer/keyboardist Judith Owen works out well in the jazz/pop vein on "Lost & Found" (Century of Progress), with nicely honed originals and a pensive rethink of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Guests include Cassandra …