Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian): It's not hard to imagine Antony, dramatically draped on a chaise lounge, warbling his melancholy songs in some Berlin cabaret between the wars. Employing an eerie falsetto and accompanied only by a far-off sounding piano and mournful string quartet, the self-styled "chanteuse" spins deeply confessional tales of sanctuary and heartbreak. In a style that resides somewhere in the confluence of Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, and ballad singer Jimmy Scott, Antony's vocals evoke a trembling baby bird, plaintively calling out for his parents to return to the nest. It is a voice that is very strange, indeed, but ultimately irresistible. The album includes guests Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, and Boy George, Antony's boyhood idol. By John Kehe
Porcupine Tree - Deadwing (Lava): Few bands juxtapose light and shade as dynamically as Porcupine Tree, a British four-piece that takes its inspiration from Pink Floyd and King Crimson. "Halo," a track that features an off-kilter solo by Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, starts with a murky and ominous groove before bursting into an unexpectedly sunny chorus that may be the catchiest thing you hear all year. Elsewhere, "Lazarus" offers a Coldplay-like piano melody, while the epic "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here" vacillates between ethereal euphoria and heavy guitar riffing that could cleave titanium. Anchored by a drummer with the arms of a blacksmith, Porcupine Tree's sound is that rare thing: progressive rock without pompous self-indulgence. By Stephen Humphries
Bruce Springsteen - Devils & Dust (Columbia): Most musicians learn to express more with less as they progress in their craft. Springsteen is no exception. His new solo CD delivers more poetry and less music this time, which might not please longtime fans. Barren, blood-stained Western landscapes, scarred psyches, and shattered dreams populate his songs, which are like three-minute soundtracks to some unmade dustbowl epic. Uncharacteristically blunt sexual language is scattered throughout. But there are small pleasures to be found that break through the bleakness - the title track's eloquent take on a soldier's moral confusion 'What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?' and a boy's tender tribute to his fallen mother in the moving "Silver Palomino." Overall, though, a disappointing listen, even if the lyrics are a terrific read. Released as a DualDisc, the album has a DVD side with compelling live performances of five tracks. - J.K.
Jo Dee Messina - Delicious Surprise (Curb): It has been nearly five years since Jo Dee Messina released "Burn," her last CD to contain entirely new material. Since then, she has gone through a stint in rehab for alcoholism and the breakup of a long-term relationship. So most of the songs on "Delicious Surprise" deal with resilience and rebounding from heartbreak. The song titles tell the tale: "Not Going Down," "It Gets Better," "Who's Crying Now," and "Life is Good." Unfortunately, there are no musical surprises. The arrangements - mostly rockers filled with layer upon layer of background vocals, dobros, fiddles, synthesizers, as well as electric, slide, and bass guitars - sound as if they were recorded for "Burn." By Vic Roberts
The Bills - Let Em Run (Red House Records): Imagine this: A Czech Gypsy band has stopped off in Ireland on the way across the Atlantic to Cape Breton Island, dipped down to Appalachia and Cajun country, spent a weekend with Tom Waits out in California, then settled down in British Columbia. That's the take on "Let Em Run" by The Bills, proving once again that some of the most innovative original and traditional music in recent decades has come out of Canada. All tunes are original compositions, except for a lush, respectful version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." (It's amazing what an accordion can do for a string band.) Solid musicianship. Excellent chops. Tight vocal harmonies à la Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. By Brad Knickerbocker