Neil Diamond - Three Chord OperaNeil Diamond has released his first album in awhile to feature only songs written by himself. Three Chord Opera is filled with sap, pomp and big orchestration. Fans of his early guitar-based singer-songwriter work may find this CD just a bit too Vegas, a bit too polished and schmaltzy. But the singerís voice is still, undeniably, Neil (for many, thatís enough). The best track, "I Havenít Played This Song In Years," opens the album with a "Sunrise, Sunset" kind of bittersweet emotion and "I Believe In Happy Endings" sounds like a ballad written for a Disney movie. "You Are The Best Part Of Me" is a pure, adult contemporary ballad that, despite the odd addition of steel drums in the background, sounds like perfect elevator music. "My Special Someone" seems to hint at the emotion of "Longfellow Serenade" capped by a Southwestern arrangement and "Donít Look Down" tries to liven things up with bouncy horn arrangements. "Baby Letís Drive" seeks to recapture the rock side of Diamond thatís been dormant for nearly two decades. This album ultimately answers one question about Diamond Ė his rock side isnít dormant, itís dead. Subverted by rhinestoned vests and silly, sappy love songs. But if you like that kinda thing, this disc will do ya just fineÖ

Pianist Leon Russell has recorded under two different names in his career, in addition to working with many other names like Joe Cocker, Sly Stone and Willie Nelson. In the early Ď70s he scored a handful of Top 100 hits both as Leon Russell and as bluegrass alter ego Hank Wilson. Now Russell has formed his own label, Leon Russell Records, to reissue some of his work and release more new material. His first discs on the label include Signature Songs, a collection of his re-recorded favorites, featuring just his weathered vocals and piano, covering hits like "Lady Blue," "Tight Rope," and "This Masquerade." Heís also unleashing a new collection of Hank Wilson songs Ė Hank Wilson Vol. 4 Rhythm & Bluegrass, along with a reissue of Hank Wilson Vol. II, which included his takes on the classic Americana songs "Wabash Cannonball," "Tennessee Waltz," and "I Saw The Light"Ö

Warner Bros. and Rhino Records have teamed up to release Dinosaur Jr.ís The Best of collection. The whiny, droney alternative guitar bandís Best follows the band from its punky origins through its slow dissolution to become, in reality, a solo project of singer-songwriter J. Mascis. It features 17 tracks, from their early tracks like "Repulsion" and "Little Fury Things" to their quirky cover of The Cureís "Just Like Heaven" to "Freak Scene," "Start Choppin," and two J. Mascis solo efforts (including what might be his best work to date, "Take A Run at The Sun," from the movie Grace of My Heart.


The Charlatans UK - Wonderland The Charlatans UK

Back in 1990, The Charlatans UK put out a hit album in Some Friendly and scored one of the catchiest jams of the year with the organ- and reverb-drenched single "The Only One I Know." They rode the wave of the "Manchester sound" Ė a mix of retro organ and funky repetitive basslines that seemed, for a short time, ubiquitous, thanks to other stalwarts like Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. While those bands are long gone, The Charlatans UK have shouldered on, releasing increasingly forgettable LPs and surviving the 1997 death of founding keyboardist Rob Collins. Their return from that tragedy, Wonderland, may, however, be their weakest attempt.

The disc opens with a serviceable funk track in "Youíre So Pretty Ė Weíre So Pretty" that lacks the full depth of sound they achieved on some of their earlier work, but includes background harmony falsettoes reminiscient of The Rolling Stonesí Emotional Rescue period.

On much of the rest of the album, the trademark repetitive organ and bass funky rhythms underpin singer Tim Burgessí newfound penchant for singing entire songs in squeaky falsettoes. Itís not a good penchant. Burgess sounds laughably strained as he tries to add excitement to these plodding tracks, which fail to ever deliver a bassline hook so infectious that the song overcomes his vocal shortcomings. In the latter half of the album, Burgess goes back to singing in his reverb-effected mid-range, but itís hard to listen long enough to Wonderland to make it that far. Probably the best track on the album omits Burgessí voice entirely Ė the instrumental funk ride "The Bell and the Butterfly" allows the band some jamming space for the bass and keyboards to "talk back" to each other.

Give Ďem credit for trying something new, but this one only makes me wonder one thing. Why?