TOM JONES "Spirit in the Room" 3 1/2 stars
Even when he became a big pop star and the quintessential Las Vegas showman in the '60s, with hits such as "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New Pussycat," Tom Jones was a more than credible singer of blues and R&B. It's a talent he revealed again on 2010's great, gospel-drenched "Praise and Blame," and more recently on his Jack White-produced cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Evil."
On "Spirit in the Room," the 72-year-old Welshman tackles bluesman Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man," but he also ventures into different territory. Most of the material comes from contemporary songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and Joe Henry. Jones shows the old sexy strut on Wait's boastful "Bad as Me," but mostly he takes an understated approach that reflects the stripped-down but evocative arrangements. The mood is often autumnal or reflective, but thanks to Jones' unerring and worldly-wise interpretations, the performances still pulse with spirit.
-- Nick Cristiano
ANTIBALAS "Antibalas" 3 1/2 stars
When a band becomes a movement, you can forgive the occasional five-year recording lapse. So it is with Brooklyn-based Antibalas, the 11-member Afrobeat orchestra that almost single-handedly rekindled popular interest in Afrobeat and its progenitor, the late Fela Kuti. In the half-decade since 2007's "Security," several members of Antibalas were deeply involved in "Fela!," the Tony Award-winning musical on the life of their forebear, "the James Brown of Nigeria." Getting inside Fela's head has put him deeper inside theirs, as Antibalas' eponymous fifth is the most purely Afrobeat of the bunch: deeply political (lead single "Dirty Money" is a 99 percent rally cry), hugely rhythmic ("Ari Degbe" has enough percussive gusto to spark a revolution), and massively soulful ("Him Belly No Go Sweet" nods to another late titan, Bob Marley). Given results this kinetic, it was worth the wait.
-- Brian Howard
COM TRUISE "In Decay" 3 stars
Since releasing a debut EP in 2010, Com Truise -- the nom de plume of electronic musician Seth Haley -- has written songs that embody '80s pop culture. Whether evoking a melodramatic slo-mo shot in a Tom Cruise flick or the opening credits of a PBS documentary on the wonders of the brain, Com Truise's music is rooted in deep grooves, spaced-out synths, and a hint of irony. "In Decay" is a collection of previously unreleased tracks and, like the prior EP and LP, it's lively and compelling, drawing from elements as diverse as Krautrock, IDM, psychedelic indie rock, 8-bit, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. "In Decay," however, features more cool jams and hip beats and less quirky dance music compared with previous releases.
-- Katherine Silkaitis
SHOES "Ignition" 3 stars
Shoes were descendants of Badfinger and the Raspberries, peers of new wave bands such as the Romantics and the Plimsouls, and progenitors of Matthew Sweet and Bigger Lovers. "Ignition" is the Zion, Ill., band's first new album in 18 years and comes 35 years after "Black Vinyl Shoes," their self-released, self-recorded debut. They had a stint on a major label (which produced 1979's classic "Present Tense"), but for much of their career, they have been happily independent, and Ignition continues that tradition. It proves that power pop ages well.
The album works that effortlessly melodic sweet spot of archetypal power pop: crunchy electric guitars buoyed by jangling acoustics behind genial harmonies, sometimes contrasted with vintage electric keyboards. Shoes are less convincing when they toughen up on the silly "Hot Mess," but a clutch of "Ignition's" tracks could slip unobtrusively among Shoes' best.
-- Steve Klinge
RICK ESTRIN AND THE NIGHTCATS "One Wrong Turn" 3 1/2 stars
They used to be Little Charlie and the Nightcats, named after their brilliant guitarist, the now-retired Charlie Baty. But even then, Rick Estrin was the front man. He's one of the great characters in blues and roots-rock -- a sharp-dressing, smooth-talking, harmonica-playing hepcat. On their second album with Estrin's name out front, and Kid Andersen replacing Baty, the group remains as entertaining as ever.
"(I Met Her on the) Blues Cruise," a rollicking tale of romance gone wrong on the high seas, and "Desperation Perspiration" highlight the comic side of the Nightcats. Estrin can also pen straight down-and-out blues, like "Broke and Lonesome" and the New Orleans-flavored "Movin' Slow." But for all the colorful personality he brings, he's also a deceptively subtle writer who can cloak pointed or sobering messages within the band's general good-time vibe, as he does on "Lucky You" and the title song. Meanwhile, two instrumental tracks -- bassist Lorenzo Farrell's jumping, jazzy "Zonin'" and Andersen's surf-mariachi pastiche, "The Legend of Taco Cobbler" -- bring to the fore the sharp, lively, and never cliched musical attack that underpins everything here.
-- Nick Cristiano
RAVI COLTRANE "Spirit Fiction" 3 1/2 stars
It's serious when a Coltrane records on Blue Note. Making his label debut is Ravi Coltrane, the second son of Alice and John Coltrane, whose 1957 "Blue Train" is a label landmark.
For some extra voodoo, Ravi Coltrane employs fellow tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano as producer. And he proffers two lineups; a quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo and a quintet with pianist Geri Allen and trumpeter Ralph Allessi, who contributes three tunes.
The results are dark and often mysterious, becoming by turns steamy, reverential, and experimental. Coltrane the younger is a dervish with much intelligence to impart. Paul Motian's "Fantasm" finds both the leader and Lovano trading beautiful abstractions.
-- Karl Stark