Ringleader of the Tormentors

REVIEWED BY CHUCK ARNOLD

CRITIC'S CHOICE

ALT-ROCK

Reportedly the Smiths were offered $5 million to reunite for a gig at a California festival later this month, but the Brit-pop heroes turned it down. Certainly Morrissey, the group's iconic frontman, isn't ready to be an '80s nostalgia act just yet. Nineteen years after the Smiths took their final bow, his solo career is thriving: His last album, 2004's You Are the Quarry, was a smashing comeback, and Moz continues his creative renaissance with Ringleader of the Tormentors. At 46, Morrissey seems revitalized, rocking harder under the guidance of producer Tony Visconti, whose glam-period work with David Bowie and T. Rex is an influence on cuts like the crashing, Middle-Eastern-tinged opener "I Will See You in Far Off Places." The singer, once an avowed celibate, also seems to have experienced a midlife sexual awakening. "I once was a mess of guilt because of the flesh," he confesses on the self-liberating "At Last I Am Born," while acknowledging the "explosive kegs between my legs" on the sweeping, string-laden "Dear God, Please Help Me." Of course, Morrissey wouldn't be Morrissey without some grand-scale moping, as he does on the disc's seven-minute centerpiece, the classically titled "Life Is a Pigsty," which goes from a driving dance track to a melodramatic ballad. But even when he croons that "You Have Killed Me" on one Smiths-like jangle-rocker, he sounds anything but ready for the cemetery gates.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Dear God, Please Help Me"

Thunderbird

REVIEWED BY V.R. PETERSON

JAZZ

She sings the body eclectic: Billie Holiday, the Monkees, U2. But better than anyone, Cassandra Wilson fuses blues and roots music with jazz. On her 16th disc, the roots vibe deepens. Dense textures and overlapping layers of sound turn funky on "Go to Mexico," which riffs off beats sampled from a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian band but speaks of sun and margaritas. Guitar picking and electric blasts from guests Keb' Mo' and Marc Ribot update traditional blues tunes by Willie Dixon ("I Want to Be Loved") and Blind Lemon Jefferson ("Easy Rider"). Once again Wilson asserts her remarkable interpretive skills, delivering a supple, haunting rendition of the Wallflowers' "Closer to You," while her originals (including songs by new producer T Bone Burnett) offer driving rhythms, synth effects and evocative lyrics. "When we make love," she sings on the darkly beautiful "Poet," "we change the patterns of the weather." Although thunderbird may offer few surprises to longtime fans of Wilson's sultry voice, it finds a singular stylist still flying high.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Closer to You"

Vision Valley

ALT-ROCK

The Vines don't waste much time racing through their third CD: Thirteen cuts clock in at little over 31 minutes. One track, the raw, raging "Gross Out," is done in 75 seconds. As this album shows, however, sometimes less is just less. Although in keeping with the punk tradition of brevity, some of these songs feel unfinished, as if they were plucked off the vine too early. Oddly, the Vines go to the other extreme for the disc's psychedelic closer, the six-minute-long "Spaceship." Still, the Australian trio displays a knack for combining garage rock and Beatles-esque pop. Vision Valley hits its peak with "Don't Listen to the Radio," a hand-clapping stomper that is just catchy enough to land these mates on the airwaves.

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Don't Listen to the Radio"

King

RAP

As the self-proclaimed King of the South, Atlanta's T.I. aims to protect his territory on this follow-up to 2004's hit Urban Legend. On the opening track, the horn-punctuated boastfest "King Back," he dubiously vows to have his competition "wiped out like Thailand." While T.I.'s latest doesn't exactly win him regional bragging rights—like many rap CDs, it's too long and has too much filler—it finds the emcee proudly representing the Southern hip-hop movement with his distinctive drawl and bass-heavy beats. T.I., who also stars in the new movie ATL, veers from street bangers such as "Ride wit Me" to the jazzy "Goodlife" (featuring Pharrell and Common) and the Isley Brothers-sampling slow jam "Hello," but he sputters with formulaic fare like "Top Back."

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "King Back"

Words Came Back to Me

POP

"My body quivers with anticipation for what lies ahead," purrs singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell on the jazz-fueled "Train," in a sultry manner belying her 17 years. After her remarkably mature and poised debut, what appears to lie ahead for this Massachusetts native is a lot more than the junior prom. With a knockout voice that alternately evokes the smokiness of Norah Jones, the soulfulness of Joss Stone and the ethereal sweetness of Sarah McLachlan, Kitchell is destined for great things. Even more impressive, she wrote every lick of Words, smoothly shifting from the bluesy pop of "Let Me Go" to the torch-song jazz of "Can't Get You Out of My Mind" and the atmospheric folk of the gorgeous "Too Beautiful."

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DOWNLOAD THIS: "Too Beautiful"

For information on where to find our Download This picks, go to www.people.com/downloadthis

PEARL JAM returns with the powerful "World Wide Suicide," the leadoff single from the grunge band's first studio album in six years, due May 2, at iTunes.com.

GNARLS BARKLEY, the collaboration between producer-deejay Danger Mouse and rapper Cee-Lo, is insanely funky on "Crazy," at myspace.com/gnarlsbarkley.

PANIC! AT THE DISCO causes an emo commotion on the catchy MTV fave "I Write Sins Not Tragedies," at music.aol.com.

JULIE ROBERTS (right) ponders the connection between "Men & Mascara" on the witty title ballad from her next country CD, at iTunes.com.