Mother-of-five Lori McKenna finally gets her due, Scott Matthews is Britain's latest answer to Jeff Buckley, and Rilo Kiley take a poptastic turn.
Lori McKenna – Unglamorous (Warner Bros. Records): This mother of five from small-town Massachusetts has released her first album since being plucked from the relative obscurity of the Boston folk scene by country superstar Faith Hill. This time around, with Hill's husband, Tim McGraw, as the album's coproducer, McKenna sounds a little more country. And it's hard to imagine the glamour quotient of her life hasn't been upped a bit, what with her recent spot on Hill's tour, which practically kicked off on Oprah's couch. But she still manages to be very much herself in "Unglamorous," delivering the same melancholy celebration of the quotidian: "No diamonds in our bathtub rings/ Peanut butter on everything." Grade: A–
– Teresa Méndez
Scott Matthews – Passing Stranger (San Remo): Matthews is a 30-year-old rookie in a crowded field of sensitive and soulful British singer/songwriters such as Paolo Nutini, James Blunt, and James Morrison but it's his songwriting that sets him apart from the others. Reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's atmospheric, raga-style acoustic music and Nick Drake's ruminative guitar excursions, Matthew's songs soothe and charm, like a warm wind off the Ganges. Indian tablas, Middle Eastern-flavored strings, and his own, rootsy slide guitar cast a spell that, happily, doesn't let up until the final track fades. Standout songs include the rocking title tune, the winsome "City Headache," and Matthew's lovely "Elusive," recipient of Britain's coveted Ivor Novello Award for Best Song of 2007. Time to make the acquaintance of this gifted stranger. Grade: B+
– John Kehe
Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros.): On its fourth record, Rilo Kiley offers up a fascinating study in contrasts: a group of indie darlings now signed to a major record label. The quartet is renowned for its folk-rock sound – ideally suited for singer Jenny Lewis's countryish purr – but these songs are so poppy you'll suspect they were secretly produced by Timbaland. And though Lewis seems like the sweet girl next door, her lyrics blithely take on sordid topics such as underage sex ("15") and prostitution ("Close Call," which includes the line, "funny thing about money for sex/ You might get rich but you'll die by it"). Yet all the contradictions are rendered moot once one listens to the sheer tunefulness of "Under the Blacklight." Few will be able to resist Lewis's coquettish cooing – which recalls Debbie Harry – or the unexpected disco swishes. Grade: B+
– Stephen Humphries