The long-suffering (and not shy about sharing it) victim of major-label machinations and countless slights, real or imagined, at the hands the male species had to keep her public waiting for the follow-up to 1995's "I'm With Stupid," but talent will out -- especially with friends like director Paul Thomas Anderson, who crafted "Magnolia" around her songs, instead of the other way around. Comprising about half that film's soundtrack, "Bachelor" is as good as it gets for fans of richly melodic misanthropy; these are hooks with barbs, the kind that made Elvis Costello's reputation, but Mann's pithy lyrics have a clarity and focus that Elvis often seems to lack the discipline to achieve. Even those put off by Mann's querulous tone would be hard-pressed to deny the pull of "Red Vines," and with "Ghost World" she puts down her dukes long enough to reveal her tender side.
Steve Earle/"Transcendental Blues"
Speaking of Dukes, this rambunctious tunesmith's latest offering finds him striking a happy truce between his various, sometimes adversarial personae. Typically, Earle's affect has alternated between Good Steve and Bad Steve: On traditional and more introspective material, he tends toward the former, but when he rocks out he often adopts a much raunchier vocal delivery, as if singing like he's gargling with Valvoline will somehow boost his hardass cred. For the most part, Earle sounds at ease and unaffected on his most eclectic offering to date, allowing us to focus on the highly satisfying songwriting, which draws from Irish music, bluegrass and even psychedelic pop-rock. A few tracks, notably the title tune, are more reminiscent of "Revolver"-era Beatles than anything else. Good Steve...
XTC/"Wasp Star: Apple Venus, Volume 2"
Now down to a three-piece, these reliable purveyors of too-clever-by-half pop music have stripped down their production aesthetic as well in this bookend to last year's "Volume 1," which offered the more laid-back portion of the Venus collection. Fans of crafty, riff-driven XTC warhorses like "Respectable Street" will immediately respond to " Playground," whose natural buoyancy reaffirms Andy Partridge's mastery of the thinking person's guitar rock. There's no denying that departed guitarist/multi-instrumentalist's Dave Gregory textural touch is missed, and the song quality is a bit uneven, but even on a slow day these guys manage to leave most of the competition standing still.
Taj Mahal/"Taj Mahal"
Before he became a master archivist of multicultural roots music, Taj Mahal started right at home in the roadhouse with his 1967 debut, recently reissued by Columbia. A straight-ahead, unadorned production precludes any embarrassingly groovy anachronisms and lets the band get down to business, namely about 30 minutes of some of the best rocking blues ever committed to vinyl. The grooves are deep, and the band simply smokes: That's Ry Cooder on guitar, and he's not even playing lead; meanwhile, Taj sounds like he's trying to blow his entire six-foot-four frame through the reeds of his harmonica and sings like he means it, eschewing the whimsy of his later efforts. But the real revelation is Jesse Ed Davis's stinging guitar work; this is the version of "Statesboro Blues" that the Allman Brothers copied, and Davis went on to appear with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh before his untimely demise from drugs. No wonder this band was the only American representative in the Rolling Stones' "Rock 'n' Roll Circus" movie; unfortunately, they never made another album with this kind of fire.
Steely Dan/"Two Against Nature"
Funny how the passage of 20 years can have absolutely no effect on these two characters, who step out of their little time capsule and remind us just how unlike anyone else they sounded in the first place. Steely Dan never pandered to the teenyboppers anyway, and if anything their jaundiced worldview sounds more apropos today, even as it has mellowed a bit. Tending a little more to the angular and funky than the hook-laden, Fagen and Becker flex their ever-awesome studio chops to stir things up both musically and lyrically, with the infernally catchy rhythm of the title track and the wistfulness and jaunty lechery of "What a Shame About Me" and "Cousin Dupree," respectively.
Eric Clapton and B.B. King/"Riding With the King"
It took making an album with his hero to shed the slick pop that has made him millions (and put fans of his guitar playing to sleep), but Eric Clapton rose to the difficult occasion of making a decent blues studio album (although the picture of the two jamming in the '60s a Hendrix-permed Clapton, B.B. with a processed 'do would have been worth the price of the CD by itself). There's too much going on in the background (why bring in two more guitar players?) but the song selection is judicious, wisely capitalizing on King's classic back catalog, and both veterans are in good form, trading off vocals and sharp solos with an immediacy that suggests they were actually both in the studio having fun at the same time. Besides the requisite hot licks, one of the album's pleasures is how well Clapton acquits himself vocally alongside King, and the two acoustic selections provide a welcome respite from the pyrotechnics. Still, in an imaginary world where this would have been recorded in one day, I'd love to hear the gig they would have played at the club that night.