Carly Simon, "Into White"
The former Jagger-dissing (or was it Warren Beatty?), James Taylor-marryin', hit-makin' Carly Simon has set herself up as the rough female equivalent of Rod Stewart. Just like the rooster-haired rocker, Simon has, of late, devoted her once-formidable songwriting energies to performing tasteful renditions of American pop standards. In doing so, she's revitalized her career: 2005's "Moonlight Serenade" was her highest-charting album in 32 years. A collection of lullabies, "Into White" continues Simon's move toward interpretation. Her song selection is still painfully prim (the Beatles' "Blackbird" and Cat Stevens' "Into White" share space with "Oh! Susanna" and "You Are My Sunshine"), but Simon's voice has deepened and coarsened over the years and that quality, along with mildly unsettling touches like the eerie Irish howl of uilleann pipes and some ghostly banjo picking, lends much-needed poignancy to a set of songs that, just barely, manage to enhance sleep rather than induce it.
Switchfoot, "Oh! Gravity"
Along with other boringly named bands like the Fray, the Calling and Lifehouse, Switchfoot have managed to get big while remaining faceless. Only the most dedicated fans could pick Switchfoot out of a lineup, but make no mistake, these guys are today's version of Kansas or REO Speedwagon, keeping cash registers ringing with slick guitar-based arena rock. Some minor-key post-grunge angst rears its tired head on a couple of tracks, but the overall vibe is set by Jon Foreman's Bono-gone-Cali vocals and a barrage of cinemascope guitars. The band comes across best with life-affirming anthems like "Burn Out Bright" and "Head Over Heels (In This Life)," which seem destined to play over a slow-motion montage on some MTV reality show. Unfortunately, they don't seem destined for anything bigger than that, either.
Mos Def, "True Magic"
Arriving in stores in just a clear plastic container, without any artwork, liner notes or track listing, Mos Def's third album comes across like a semi-legal mix tape. And though "True Magic" may look slapped together, the music contained within its threadbare packaging reveals it as anything but tossed off. Perhaps betraying his recent acting forays ("16 Blocks," "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), "True Magic" finds the New York rapper inhabiting a variety of roles, from a synth-backed boaster ("Undeniable"), to reggae polemicist ("Dollar Day"), to gritty urban storyteller ("Napoleon Dynamite"). But the magnetic force of Def's personality makes it all work; "True Magic" is the kind of album that makes all those folks talking big about the death of hip-hop look like a bunch of myopic chicken littles. By turns fiery, tender, funky and funny, "True Magic" lives up to its name.
Sonic Youth, "The Destroyed Room"
Everyone's favorite middle-aged avant-garde rock 'n' rollers probably didn't intend for this collection of rarities and B-sides to be given the same careful attention as a proper album release, but it's still hard not to hear "The Destroyed Room" as a mild disappointment after the excellence of the band's other 2006 release, "Rather Ripped." Where the earlier album favored melody over shrill experimentation, "The Destroyed Room" tends more toward wordless and meandering mood pieces. Occasionally, the album hits upon an idea worth exploring ("Kim's Chords" chugs stridently through a series of cyclical chord patterns; "Queen Anne Chair" rises and falls on the strength of its attractively bent guitar lines), but most of the time the music just hangs in the air, thick and dense like a cloud of factory smoke. You'll definitely earn your downtown bona fides if you can sit through all 10 discordant minutes of "Fire Engine Dream," let alone the 25 minutes of "The Diamond Sea (Alternate Ending)," but don't be ashamed if you find yourself longing for "Rather Ripped's" suburban accessibility.