Alison Krauss + Union Station (Rounder)

If anyone deserves the right to celebrate and profit from the bluegrass renaissance, it's Alison Krauss. Along with such contemporaries as Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Krauss helped preserve and recultivate the genre for years. Although a fine solo artist, the singer-fiddler finds her real strength as an ensemble musician. Reunited with her exemplary band on this follow-up to her 1999 solo recording Forget About It, she seems reenergized.

Alternating lead vocals with side-men Ron Block and Dan Tyminski (who dubbed George Clooney's singing in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Krauss nimbly skips from poignant ballads (on the title track) to rousing reels ("Daylight") on New Favorite. She even shifts the spotlight to Dobro master Jerry Douglas, who carries the band through his own instrumental, "Choctaw Hayride." And Krauss is confident enough not to worry about political correctness in the traditional "Bright Sunny South," a pro-Confederacy Civil War tune.

Bottom Line: Old favorite, new gem

Bob Dylan (Columbia)

Album of the week

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At 60, Bob Dylan still hasn't cleared his throat: His voice is like a stretch of unpaved road churning through sagebrush and Joshua trees. Which is to say, better than ever.

His last album, Time Out of Mind (1997), sounded like a postcard from the cemetery. Now Dylan is shaking off the tombstone blues; at times he is coltish, toying with words, cracking jokes ("Po' boy...call down to room service/ Says, 'Send up a room' ") and reflecting on love—not always ruefully. He even tosses in what sounds suspiciously like a serenade ("Moonlight").

There is one great track: the mandolin-sweetened "Mississippi," a song about regret, longing ("I'm gonna look at you till my eyes go blind") and finally hope ("Stick with me baby.../ Things should start to get interesting right about now").

Other tunes are tangled up in blues, country, even rockabilly. The effect is loose, like a southern bar band staying late for friends; the lyrics are mostly playful, unstudied. "You're gonna need my help sweetheart/ You can't make love all by yourself," Dylan taunts in "Lone-some Day Blues"; "I've still got a dream that hasn't been repossessed," he crows in "Bye and Bye." This is the 43rd record of Dylan's career. May it mark the halfway point.

Bottom Line: Freewheelin'

The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley a.k.a. Mr. Biggs (Dream Works)

The title may not be an exaggeration: These Brothers are here to stay. Since forming in the '50s, the Isleys—now reduced to just lead singer Ronald and his guitarist sibling Ernie—have churned out such R&B hits as "It's Your Thing," "That Lady (Part 1)" and "Between the Sheets." They have also been judiciously sampled in rap and have influenced such contemporary soul men as R. Kelly, who got a hand from Ronald Isley on his 1996 hit "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)."

Kelly returns the favor here on the single "Contagious," a vintage Isley Brothers slow jam on which Ronald adopts the Mr. Biggs gangster alter ego he introduced in the "Down Low" video. Elsewhere the Isleys get an assist from Jill Scott on the poetic "Said Enough," another of the disc's many dim-the-lights moments. But the Brothers are never upstaged by their guests; their patented vocal-guitar interplay highlights such tracks as "You're All I Need." They even make Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" their own in a terrific seven-minute cover.

Bottom Line: The Isleys still have it

Ben Folds (Epic)

Prozac Nation has found its John Philip Sousa. Folds, who memorably sang the 1997 slacker anthem "Brick" (refrain: "She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly"), this time heartbreakingly builds his piano chords to a surefire sing-along chorus for the perpetually disappointed: "Everybody knows/ It sucks to grow up" in "Still Fighting It," about a father trying to connect with his son.

Folds—formerly of Ben Folds Five and now a solo act—plays a seductive jazz-rock piano that suggests Joe Jackson's depressed little brother. But though Folds can make the keys of his Baldwin seethe and snarl (the must-you-dump-me track "Gone"), he also plays as prettily as Billy Joel (the tragic "Carrying Cathy" and the mocking "The Ascent of Stan"). Some story songs bop along merrily but to the beat of hearts getting stepped on: "Annie Waits" is a rewrite of the Stones' "Waiting on a Friend" from a woman's point of view with a final twist: "Annie waits, but not for me." Other lyrics feature more painful losses than autumn in Fenway Park: That's Folds at his finest.

Bottom Line: Gloom with a view

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Chuck Arnold.