Leaving aside his dainty stage name and disregard for the rules of grammar, Musiq's openhearted neo-soul/r&b makes for a refreshing change from pop's raunchier concerns. On his consistently entertaining fourth album, which comes after a three-year hiatus, the Philadelphia-based singer born Talib Johnson delivers a dozen craftily produced ballads and club tracks favoring romance over lust. A lush Stevie Wonder feel dominates, especially on such instantly likable cuts as "Thequestions" and "Teachme," while the funky, old-school "Buddy" provides an appealing opening blast of good vibes. "Luvanmusiq" puts Musiq back in the game.
-- Fred Shuster
VARIOUS: "Sound Eclectic: The Covers Project" (Hear Music) - Two and one half stars
There are always pitfalls and potential in covering other artists' songs, and this compilation illustrates that. Recorded at various times at KCRW studios for Nic Harcourt's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," "Covers" has engaging moments like the Magic Numbers' acoustic version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," which brings out the song's musicality, and overwrought ones like Damien Rice's take on Radiohead's "Creep." Paul Weller's soulfulness on "Wishing on a Star" and Nikka Costa's lively "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" are highlights. And there is one gem -- Gary Jules' haunting "Mad World," the Tears for Fears song that he originally reworked for the "Donnie Darko" soundtrack. The rest of the disc is mixed. There are pleasant if uninspired cuts -- like the covers of Neil Young, James Taylor, John Hartford and Patty Griffin songs, and there are a number of misses that remind you why the originals should have been left alone.
-- Rob Lowman
JOHNNY CASH: "Ultimate Gospel" (Columbia/Legacy) - Three and one half stars
Get past the fact that Cash's ultimate gospel recordings (the "My Mother's Hymn Book" album he made with Rick Rubin shortly before he died) aren't here, and you'll find much treasure on this 24-track compilation. Columbia has collected Cash's gospel music before, but this CD has a wider range (the recordings go from 1957-81) and includes stray tracks that have been hard to find. There are also three previously unreleased songs, each one a keeper, especially a powerful 1974 reading of "How Great Thou Art." Cash had a passion for God and gospel, and this collection makes that clearer than ever.
-- Glenn Whipp
MOS DEF: "True Magic" (Geffen) - Three stars
Not as compelling as his earlier albums or his work with Talib Kweli, "True Magic" finds Mos Def moving back to the soulful lyricism that brought him into the limelight. He still tries his hand at singing -- with pretty much the same lackluster results as 2004's "The New Danger" -- but it's done sparingly.
One of the few MCs that can make a song socially conscious and still possess scads of anthemic vigor ("Murder of a Teenage Life") and funky exuberance ("Napoleon Dynamite"), this album is concrete proof that Mos Def's unique lyrical felicity hasn't lost any of its power. When it counts, he's still one of the best hip-hop artists around.
-- Len Cutler
UNCLE EARL: "Waterloo, Tennessee" (Rounder) - Three stars
This all-female string band's sophomore effort was produced by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and the multi-instrumentalist certainly has an ear for the backwoods stuff. Allowing Uncle Earl's ladies to luxuriate in acoustic virtuosity and inventive, heartrending harmonies, the album is as adventurous as Nickel Creek.
-- Bob Strauss
(1) no caption (MUSIQ SOULCHILD)
(2 -- 6) no caption (CD covers)