Noteworthy new music: Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin – Children Running Through (ATO): How this lustrous singer-songwriter from Old Town, Maine, came by her soulful twang is a mystery – in interviews over the years she has suggested a French-Canadian influence. Its origin matters less than what that voice delivers. You get the feeling that acoustic folk-rocker Griffin could confidently veer off vocally down any road she chooses. This effort, on Dave Matthews's indie label, presents her at her bluesy best ("Stay on the Ride") – with forays into folk, gospel, and country. Her harmonizing with Emmylou Harris on "Trapeze" alone makes the CD worth owning. "No Bad News" jangles like a jamboree. Her piano soothes on "Someone Else's Tomorrow." Powerful. Grade: A
– Clayton Collins

John Mellencamp – Freedom's Road (Universal Music): If you've watched any football game in recent months, you're more than a little tired of the ubiquitous Chevy commercial with John Mellencamp's "Our Country" serving as the soundtrack. Me, too. Despite that off-putting lead-in to his new CD, Mellencamp redeems himself with an album melding garage rock with soothing choruses (provided by Little Big Town) and all manner of country and folk accents. It sounds spare and powerful. Standouts include lead track "Someday," the haunting, simmering small-town pain of "Rural Route" and the sly bounce of "Heaven is a Lonely Place." All in all, Mellencamp sounds more engaged than he has in a decade or more. Grade: B–
– Erik Spanberg

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop): High expectations have been nipping at the ankles of Portland's favorite little indie band since Natalie Portman's famous declaration in the movie "Garden State" that the Shins will "change your life." (No pressure or anything). Can they deliver? Not this time, I'm afraid. Conspicuously absent from this third album is the underdog vibe and winsome intimacy that made young America say "this is our band." Instead, we get a more polished, stadium-ready sound that borders on the overwrought. The first single, "Phantom Limb" is a corker – with a roller coaster melody line and James Mercer vocal that is downright Brian Wilsonian. But an unfortunate sameness settles into most of the other tracks and the expected great melodies never show up. Sure, it sounds like the Shins, but in this case, bigger doesn't mean better. Grade: B
– John Kehe

Norah Jones – Not Too Late (Blue Note): What a voice. What a band. What a disappointment! With one of the great voices of this or any decade and a fine collection of musicians at hand, why is this CD so dull? The fatal flaw: an entire album of self-penned songs. Its paint-by-numbers melodies, a paucity of choruses, banal lyrics, and soggy tempos will put even the most Starbucks-fueled denizen into a deep sleep. Every time I hear this gifted vocalist take on a worthy song – from Willie Nelson to Gershwin to Tom Waits – she's golden. Note to Miss Jones: why not treat yourself – and your audience – to some top-notch material next time out? Grade: C
– J.K.

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