James Taylor October Road (Columbia):
Many years ago in a song, James Taylor assured us that "love must find you a way." The gentle voice and sweet melodies we heard on the radio belied two decades of deep addiction, broken relationships, and severe writer's block. Sober since the early '90s, James found new love in 1997 and tied the knot (his third) last year. This recent father of two baby boys seems reborn, with his best collection of new songs since the late '70s. It's the sound of a man who's come to terms with a messy life and found a mother lode of new material in it. All the great Taylor hallmarks are here winsome lyrics, sly humor, a touch of funky blues, and those signature chord changes. The first single from the CD chronicles the day he and his new bride met "On the Fourth of July." The final track, a touching rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is sure to become a holiday radio staple. A few more up-tempo tunes would have been welcome, but this is a fine return to form. And when J.T. is on his game, he's as warm and inviting as a country road. John Kehe
Kathy Mattea Roses (Narada): Kathy Mattea is widely known as a country artist. But she's breaking away from her Nashville connections with "Roses," a collection of Celtic- influenced folk songs. Among the catchiest tunes: "That's All the Lumber," a jig with a moral tale on giving; "Come Away With Me" think Shawn Colvin with Irish whistles; and "Junkyard," a protest against all trash on television and in other media. The CD's first single, "They Are the Roses," however, drones on and on with the same guitar lick. The CD also contains several forgettable ballads. In the end, it's a mixed-bag attempt by Mattea to find a new audience in the world of adult contemporary music. Vic Roberts
Beth Orton Daybreaker (AstralWerks): With her fourth CD, fans get to see two sides of the British singer-songwriter. On the cover, her hair is slicked back. She's wearing a solemn face, while staring out the window of a ship. But turn the CD over, and her hair is tousled; she's kicking up her leg on the beach and smiling. It's reflective of the 10 songs, which range from bluesy and mellow numbers to dance-floor hip-hop and calypso. With collaborators Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris on "God Song," and a voice that's strong, crisp, and confident, it's no wonder critics are raving about "Daybreaker." Lisa Leigh Parney
Don't Give Up On Me Solomon Burke (Fat Possum Records): Remember soul music? You know deep soul like Aretha, Otis, and yes, Solomon Burke. While the first two are more familiar names, Burke stands right beside them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And although it's been four decades since his early hits like "Cry to Me" and "Just Out of Reach," this comeback CD showcases a commanding, protean baritone undimmed by years or the swirling winds of musical fashion. Recorded live in the studio in just four days, it features a small, tight-but-loose band supplemented by horns and a gospel-esque Hammond B3 organ (played by the same talented man who accompanies the church choir where the Rev. Burke preaches). The novelty aspect of this CD is that most of the songs were written by admirers like Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan. Truth is, except perhaps for the title track, none of these tunes is headed for soul classic heaven. But the mere fact that they create a forum to hear once again "the voice" upfront in the mix, forged by life's joys and hard knocks is reason enough to celebrate. J.K.
Jorma Kaukonen Blue Country Heart (Columbia): Every musician's dream is to play with the best, and guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen scored big-time when he joined the cream of Nashville's bluegrass pickers to record this superlative CD. Thirteen country and blues tunes from the '20s and '30s are transformed by Jorma and company into a good-time front-porch jam that has Grammy written all over it. Though not a gifted singer, Kaukonen brings to these old songs a sincerity that is key to the disc's charm. J.K.