Raphael Saadiq, "The Way I See It"
Maybe there's a fine line between an R&B sound that's derivative and one that harks back to an earlier tradition of luxe production values and silky harmonies. With "The Way I See It," Raphael Saadiq -- formerly of Tony! Toni! Toné! and the one-shot Lucy Pearl -- blurs the line so beautifully that it ceases to matter. From the optimistic buoyancy of "Sure Hope You Mean It" to the svelte heartbreak of "Big Easy," Saadiq has come up with a supremely elegant record, tempered by just the right amount of fire. It's like a dream of Sam Cooke, committed to vinyl -- in other words, an album that refuses to acknowledge that vinyl is a thing of the past. -- Stephanie Zacharek
Season 4 of "My Name Is Earl"
Redneck culture is harder to turn into good comedy than you'd think. It's tempting to take the easy route and mimic or catalog the crassness of Skynyrd fans or families with multiple dogs under their porches, like Jeff Foxworthy does, or to descend into an overcooked parody of Tennessee Williams on the order of "Mama's Family." Greg Garcia's TV series "My Name is Earl," the story of a hick who sets himself to paying back his karmic debt by righting all his past wrongs, does indulge in its fair share of down-home gags, including a trashed trailer -- Earl's ex-wife lives in a mobile home that has been knocked on its side. But the show's ensemble cast, led by the irresistible Jason Lee, maintains a level of wise foolishness that bolsters compassion for this hapless crew of screw-ups. The show's got heart, even when it comes to Earl's amazingly thick-headed brother Randy, who carries his comatose brother home from the hospital in a shopping cart and dumps puréed chicken and fries into his I.V. The writers also maintain a wry sense of class consciousness -- the episode in which Earl fights to move up from stock boy to salesman at the appliance store where he works is a mini-masterpiece of social critique. For the newest season, which began Thursday night, the creators of "My Name Is Earl" have gone back to the show's roots and based more of the new episodes on Earl's list of past bad deeds that require immediate correction. Let's hope the list is infinite. -- James Hannaham
"Flora's Dare" by Ysabeau S. Wilce
Flora Fyrdraaca, the teenage heroine of Ysabeau Wilce's spirited young-adult novels, comes from an eminent military/political family but aspires to be a ranger, which in her imaginary land resembles a cross between a musketeer and a wizard. Like the first book in the series, "Flora Segunda," "Flora's Dare" features the pacing of a madcap farce, the intrigues of a Dorothy Dunnett novel and a Wonderland version of San Francisco in which the human residents are the colonial subjects of some vaguely Aztec-bird-headed overlords. Weird in the best possible way, Wilce's novels are what girl readers graduating from the Harry Potter books ought to be reading instead of the insipid "Twilight" series. The author's Web site is fun, too. -- Laura Miller
"The Bill Douglas Trilogy" on DVD
British cinema has a long tradition of producing remarkable film talent and then discarding, undervaluing or exporting it, but there is no more dramatic example than that of Scottish director Bill Douglas. Born in 1934 and raised in a viciously poor mining town outside Edinburgh by a succession of grandparents, without much idea who or where his parents were, Douglas returned to those roots in the early '70s with three amazing narrative films that, while highly influential in the development of British cinema, remain almost unknown outside Scotland. At last available in a North American DVD release from Facets Video, "The Bill Douglas Trilogy" -- comprising "My Childhood," "My Ain Folk" and "My Way Home" -- displays a concise and confident mastery of black-and-white composition, editing and sound design, along with a poetic-minimalist sensibility utterly shorn of sentimental nostalgia. Douglas' love-starved young protagonist, Jamie (Stephen Archibald), must survive an environment of seemingly endless neglect, abuse, insanity and alcoholism, in which any small act of kindness appears as a miracle, before finding an unlikely escape through a middle-class English boy he meets while doing his national service in Egypt. There's really no way I can overstate the cinematic brilliance and emotional immediacy of these films; they'll blow you away. Douglas' trilogy should have been celebrated as the emergence of a British Truffaut, and launched a great career or an entire cinematic movement. Instead, he found it increasingly difficult to raise money and made only one more film (the 1986 epic "Comrades"), spending the rest of his life as a beloved film instructor before dying in 1991. -- Andrew O'Hehir
The Walkmen, "You & Me"
"Well, it's back to the battle today, but I wouldn't have it any other way." Dark and brooding, echoing and triumphant, the Walkmen's "You & Me" is the sonic equivalent of a trip to the state fair. The jangling enlightenment of a Ferris wheel ride is followed closely by the dark shadows of carnies and smoking teenagers and the press of an unruly crowd. With buzzing vintage instrumentation and the scratchy, slurring swoon of Hamilton Leithauser's voice, the Walkmen capture the sadness and longing and solitude of modern life, and then shift gears and throw themselves into those sweet moments and raucous celebrations that make it all worthwhile. "It's gonna be a good year," Leithauser sings as the organ chimes triumphantly, and he sounds like he really means it, too. Sweet Jesus, let's hope he's right! -- Heather Havrilesky
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