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Discs

>Rock

Secret Machines

Secret Machines

[TSM]

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

Full-length album number three from this decade's bright young rock hopefuls Secret Machines turned out to be a make-or-break affair, rather than a cashing-in on forward momentum. After touring behind the brilliant 2007 effort "Ten Silver Drops," which was consistently praised on a critical level and deepened the band's fan base, guitarist Benjamin Curtis quit. That left his brother, singer/songwriter/bassist/keyboardist Brandon, and drummer Josh Garza up the creek without a paddle. While Benjamin Curtis went on to form the esoteric School of Seven Bells, Brandon Curtis and Garza pondered killing off the Secret Machines name and starting fresh.

It didn't help that the band's label, Warner Bros., was not interested in a sans Ben Curtis Secret Machines, which left the group seriously adrift. Happily, in the nick of time, they thought of former Tripping Daisy guitarist and friend Phil Karnats, a choice so obvious the pair had almost overlooked it.

Hence, this new record is titled simply "Secret Machines," as if to imply that the group is starting over anew. That's not wholly the case -- most of what makes this album so wonderful is the same blend of billowing, big, bombastic and beautiful production and astute hybridization of '70s "big rock" and late-'80s alternative that made the band's major-label debut, "Now Here Is Nowhere," so striking. However, Karnats is a more subtle manipulator of texture than was his forebear, and that means that the Machines' by-now-perfected mix of massive, John Bonham-like drum grooves and spacious psychedelia gets even more room to do its thing.

It doesn't take long for opener "Atomic Heels" to prove that the ghost still moves inside the Machines. Tuneful and melodic -- but still primal -- the song mixes a Joy Division-ish downcast vibe with Garza's life-affirming wood-and-skin thunder to stunning effect. The fulcrum on which the album pivots, however, is still the Machines' unerring ability to craft killer epics. "The Walls Are Starting to Crack" is one of these pieces, cast in the mold of earlier tunes like "First Wave Intact" and "Daddy's in the Doldrums."

The Machines, however, know a thing or two about pacing by this point, and they save the best and boldest for last. "The Fire Is Waiting" is quite likely the band's finest 10 minutes to date. To call it "sprawling" is both tempting and not quite enough -- in its behemoth-like strut, it recalls early Black Sabbath, but the song's ability to force huge riffs to bend to the will of legitimate melody is wholly post-modern. This one is sure to be a force of nature on the concert stage.

More than simply holding their place in the modern-rock line following the departure of a founding member, the Machines have taken a confident step forward.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Pop/R&B

Michelle Williams

Unexpected

[Columbia]

Review: 2 1/2 stars

Michelle Williams has long toiled in the estimable shadow cast by her boss in Destiny's Child, the always-everywhere-at-once Beyonce. "Unexpected" is actually her third solo effort, though the first two were essentially gospel albums with R&B overtones. This time, Williams is clearly going for the gold ring, and toward that end, she has made an unashamedly secular pop album tailored toward nightclubs and urban pop radio.

Since that's what it is, that's how it should be judged. So if single "Hello Heartbreak" sounds positively retro, like a mildly hip take on Paula Abdul's '80s fare, well, Williams isn't out standing in her own field here -- electro-pop-disco hybrids blatantly stealing from '80s hits are de rigueur these days. This one, as far as these things go, is pretty cute and huggable, even if it overdoes the snazzy in-studio vocal effects. "We Break the Dawn" again floats atop the buzz-saw synths of electro-pop, but again, Williams remains easier to swallow than many of her peers, because she's far more sugar than spice, more inclined to insinuate than to downright brag.

This can translate as a lack of pretension, particularly when balanced against Beyonce's tendency toward the overblown and self-important. Williams knows that this is all just disposable pop music, and its job is to be fun, snappy and catchy, not pretentious or overdressed. "Unexpected" actually lives up to its name.

-- J.M.

***

>Pop

Yo-Yo Ma and Friends

Songs of Joy and Peace

[SONY Classical]

Review: 2 1/2 stars

If Yo-Yo Ma gets any cuter or cuddlier, we will have to slap tinsel on him and put him on the top of the Christmas tree. This Christmas CD is just so precious. Anchored by jazz variations on the old round "Dona Nobis Pacem," it comprises songs featuring a Who's Who of the kind of popsters now making the rounds of symphony pops concerts -- Alison Krauss warbling "The Wexford Carol"; Sergio and Odair Assad, Natalie MacMaster, bassist Edgar Meyer, etc.

"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" cheapens things a little, and so does Diana Krall's silly "You Couldn't Be Cuter," included for whatever reason. But there are some gems in there. Dave Brubeck, in fine form, kicks in an exuberant take on "Joy to the World," and it's fun hearing Joshua Redman in "My One and Only Love," though he makes Yo-Yo Ma and his cello sound superfluous. Finally, I loved the "Here Comes the Sun" with James Taylor. I hope I don't get coal in my stocking for that.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

***

>Soul

Various Artists

Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia

[SONY/Legacy, 4 discs]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

If Motown was the juggernaut of soul music in the '60s and '70s, the Philadelphia International music of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff was the self-styled "Love Train" -- the one virtually everybody rode at one time.

It's probably fruitless at this stage to pit the great '70s soul labels (Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International) against one another because, as irresistible as so many of the Stax and Philadelphia International hits might prove to be, they never became a kind of sonic climate in America the way Motown did in its greatest '60s years.

Even so, a four-disc set of the Best of Gamble and Huff and the rest of Philly Soul is a perfectly smashing idea. Even better on this terrific four-disc set, it is superbly presented with well-written notes from Lynell George, James Miller and Gerald Early as well as festooned with a time line of soul music and soul culture from Louis Jordan's '40s and '50s jump blues to Patti LaBelle's "Love, Need and Want You" in 1984.

Were they competing with Motown in the '70s?

"No," says Huff in the notes. "Motown was our inspiration. We just took things to another level." And the awakening of black songwriters in the '70s coincided, says Huff, with a socio-political awakening for black America.

The result, in another area entirely, was music that all of America couldn't help singing along with: Harold Melvin and the Blues Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," not to mention hits -- like the O'Jays' "Love Train" -- that the world choogled to even if it had the dancing ability of the average carp.

Among the major pluses of this set is that you get early Gamble and Huff from Atlantic and Island records, too -- Dusty Springfield's "Brand New Me," "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" and Jerry Butler's "Only the Strong Survive."

You don't just have enduring American music here, but also a nice sketch of a city that has been cardinal to American music since the beginning of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand."

-- Jeff Simon

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