Reviews of recent CDs
Dido - Life for Rent (Arista): When Eminem sampled Dido's "Thank You" a few years ago, he pushed her into international stardom. With her latest, Life for Rent, she proves she's no one-hit wonder. Her distinctive voice and beautiful orchestrations are still here, but Dido expresses herself in a more honest way on songs like "White Flag" and "Life for Rent." The album is, simply, wonderful. The melodies are as comfortable and soft as a pillow. - Lisa Leigh Connors
Gov't Mule - The Deepest End (ATO): Meet Warren Haynes, rock music's great nomad. Recently voted 23rd best guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, Haynes is a fixture in the Allman Brothers Band as well as Phil Lesh and Friends. But his spiritual home is Gov't Mule, an improvisational trio he has fronted for nine years. This DVD and two-CD package from a six-hour concert (did I mention this was a jam band?) is a great précis of the group's best material. Guests ranging from David Hidalgo of Los Lobos to banjo player Bela Fleck, fuel Haynes's flights of fancy guitar playing. - Stephen Humphries
Travis - 12 Memories (Epic): A few years ago, Scottish heartthrobs Travis went from being scuffling nobodies in Glasgow to megastars in Europe, on the strength of sincere and irresistible pop masterpieces like "Driftwood" and "Sing." Though earnestness is usually "uncool," elfin lead singer Fran Healy proudly wears his ample heart on his sleeve. The 12 new songs expound tunefully on spousal abuse, the war in Iraq, Catholic school discipline, and the healing balm of love. Romantics and pop fans everywhere will welcome Healy's plaintive choirboy tenor, urging us to trust that "Love Will Come Through." A fine new release from an inspiring band. - John Kehe
Martina McBride - Martina (RCA): Let's admit it: Martina McBride has the best set of pipes in country music today. Her new CD just adds proof as McBride's voice glides elegantly over a fine collection of songs that touch at the heart of life. She captures the beauty of a child at play in the spirited "She's a Butterfly" and finds humor in a well-traveled woman's wedding day in "Wearing White." But what McBride does best is tackle life's real challenges. The best track on this CD is no exception: "God's Will," poignantly shows how many of life's problems are but a trifle compared with the challenges of raising a sick child. - Vic Roberts
Rosemary Clooney Rosemary Clooney: The Best of the Concord Years (Concord Records) and Bette Midler Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook (Columbia Records): Incomparable vocal stylist Rosemary Clooney, who died last year, spent 25 years recording pop standards at Concord Records. Its new two-CD set shows off her mature work: a confident, warm voice that can swing or torch it up with the best. Her sensitive renditions give songs like "How Long Has This Been Going On" and "Stormy Weather" back to songwriters Gershwin and Arlen. Bette Midler is a diva of a later era, but her tribute CD shows how easily the Divine Miss M might have fit in with Clooney, Judy Garland, and Dinah Shore. It's a sweet confection that melts far too fast. Serious fans may want both, since only three songs overlap (compare Clooney's famous originals on "Mambo Italiano," "Hey There," and "White Christmas" with Midler's bright covers). - Gregory M. Lamb
Randy Newman - Songbook Vol.1 (Nonesuch): Nobody writes songs like Randy Newman. And nobody ever has. Newly recorded (au natural with only the artist and his piano), this retrospective makes it clear that no one in music can approach his sheer nerve, lyrical ambition, or musical gifts. While songs like 1972's "Marie," and "When She Loved Me" from "Toy Story 2" reveal his melodic and sentimental side, it's his unflinching wit and wry humor that define the bulk of this 18-song set. His froggy voice takes some getting used to, but it's the perfect instrument to deliver these oddball gems. - J.K.