Come On Home (Virgin 42984)
Before he found commercial success singing slick, blue-eyed soul in the late '70s, Boz Scaggs was weaned on the R&B of the '50s. So it should come as no surprise that he's so at home with the gritty, guitar-based blues proffered on "Come On Home." Scaggs, after all, is no stranger to such oldies as Ketty Lester's "Love Letters" or Mabel John's "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)." It's when he makes lesser-known tunes, like Bobby Bland's "Don't Cry No More" or originals, like "Picture of a Broken Heart," seem just as familiar that this album begins to seem exceptional. It helps, of course, that Scaggs' tart delivery cuts to the heart of these songs, distilling the devotion of "I've Got Your Love" into the sort of sweet Southern soul Otis Redding used to make, but that's only part of it -- the rest comes from Scaggs' skill as a guitarist. Scaggs handles most of the album's lead work, and while it's unlikely anyone will mistake him for Eric Clapton, his lean, tuneful solos are every bit as eloquent as his singing. No doubt that's why the album seems so inviting, because when Scaggs suggests we "Come On Home," he does his best to make the place seem comfortably familiar.
Nuyorican Soul (Giant Step/Blue Thumb 1130)
As popular as retro-disco may be, most of today's dance music misses an essential element of the original '70s sound: Live musicians. Working with synthesizers and sequencers may make recording dance music easier and more accurate, but there's something magical in the kind of collective groove flesh-and-blood generates. Take "Nuyorican Soul" as an example. Less a working band than a producer's collective, the players who make up Nuyorican Soul draw from a variety of arenas, including salsa (India, Tito Puente), soul (Jocelyn Brown, Cindy Mizelle), hip-hop (Jazzy Jeff, Little Louie Vega) and jazz (George Benson, Roy Ayers). Not only does that lend a lusty vitality to the album's full-band workouts, bringing a lush beauty to "Sweet Tears" and infusing "Shoshana" with the sort of fire only the best Latin music boasts, but it makes the dance tracks that much more compelling. "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun," for example, conveys an itchy energy that programming alone can never deliver, while "Run Away" is blessed with the sort of instrumental uplift expected of a disco classic. A dangerously addictive album.
The Cicadas (Warner Bros. 46498)
What do new wave and new country have in common? Not much on the face of it. But after spending some time with "The Cicadas," it's hard not to wonder if Rodney Crowell and the rest of the Cicadas haven't stumbled onto the missing link between late-'70s London and modern Nashville. Though the songs seem like conventional country material at first, there's something unexpectedly sly about the soul-song references in "Nobody's Gonna Tear My Playhouse Down" or the Costello-like wit of "When Losers Rule the World." Nor is it any surprise to find that the postcard twists of "Wish You Were Her" come courtesy of composers T-Bone Burnette and Bono. Likewise, the brittle guitars and British Invasion overtones found in "Blonde Ambition" or "Our Little Town" could as easily have been the work of new pTC wave oldies like Rockpile or the Rumour. Still, as tempting as it might be to believe that the Cicadas really did spend the past 17 years in underground hibernation, there's something refreshing about the band's blend of old and new -- particularly when it produces songs as catchy and charming as "We Want Everything" and "Through with the Past."
Homework (Virgin 42609)
If you believe the word "punk" refers to a specific style of guitar rock, odds are that you'll find Daft Punk more daft than punk. But if you take punk to be more about attitude than musical style, then you'll have no trouble handling "Homework." Sure, the duo's sound is maddeningly mechanical at times, but there's something oddly liberating about the mindless repetition built into "Daftendirekt" or "Around the World." What makes these giddily electronic workouts so entrancing is the ease with which they pound home Daft Punk's less-is-more philosophy; seldom has such a slight sense of melody seemed so compelling. Good as it is, not every listener is going to have the sort of stamina required to withstand 14 Daft Punk workouts -- particularly when some, like "Rollin' & Scratchin'," are as tuneful as the average migraine. But when Daft Punk finds its groove, as on the snaky, infectious "Da Funk," these two Frenchmen will have no trouble convincing you that there really is soul in all those synths and sequencers.