New releases from Tim O'Brien, The Hush Sound, and Kathy Mattea, along with three other albums that came out recently, including a take on the new Nine Inch Nails.

TIM O’BRIEN “Chameleon” (Proper Records) Grade: A-

It’s been three years since we’ve heard anything new from the celebrated and Grammy-award winning musician Tim O’Brien and with this solo album, we get the man at his most playful, honest and melancholy. “Get Out There and Dance” is a fun little ditty that will surprise his past fans, but it also represents how O’Brien approached “Chameleon.” He doesn’t hold back and because of that, listeners get sounds of bluegrass, country and folk all from one man and whatever instrument he decides to play (guitar, mandolin or banjo). There’s the haunting and longing tone of “The Garden” and the political “World of Trouble” where O’Brien sums up his experience with the past two presidential elections with the lyric “I voted once for Nader/ I voted once for Kerry too/ For conscious and for compromise/ But neither one came through.” But the best song is the closer, “Nothing to Say,” where O’Brien admits that all the songs have been written and that he’s just some guy who plays the guitar. Simple, and yet somehow profound.

THE HUSH SOUND “Goodbye Blues” (Decaydance) Grade: C+

With artists such as Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles making piano rock popular again, Greta Salpeter, who handles most of the vocals and piano for the band, is poised to be the next attractive girl tickling the ivories. And for most of the album she does that, with the haunting “Intro” and “Hurricane,” along with the jubilant sounding “Medicine Man.” However, there are a couple of missteps, mainly when Bob Morris starts to sing and turns the band into a light-sounding Hot Hot Heat (he has three songs, but it’s enough to matter). It wouldn’t be so bad had we not gotten used to Salpeter’s rough vocal style that has occasional Fiona Apple moments. The album features two different bands, and only one of them is worth listening to.  

KATHY MATTEA “Coal” (Captain Potato)
Grade: A-

On the Grammy-winner’s 17th studio album, the West Virginia native pays tribute to coal miners and the people like her, who saw family members make careers out of hauling coal from the earth. She does this by celebrating the songs of Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips, and Billy Edd Wheeler, which helps the album plays like a love letter, expressing adoration for the rough heroes that descend into the minds and displaying pride in her home state (along with a small amount of guilt for leaving). Even without experience the way of life, it’s easy to appreciate the flowing bluegrass/country sound of Mattea’s interpretations of these classic American songs. And with the Sago Mine Disaster still fresh in people’s psyche, it’s a solemn reminder of a profession that fuels the country’s economy, sometimes with the blood of the young. This is most apparent in the album’s final song, Dickens’ “Black Lung.” Mattea sings the vocals a cappella with sorrowful conviction.

“Robotique Majestique”
(Trashy Moped Records)
Grade: B+ 

There’s an epic opening track that sounds like it’s introducing some mythical beast from a sci-fi movie. From there the album goes into “Heavy Heart,” an energetic, Modest-Mouse-esque track that proves the previous epic intro was completely warranted. Ghostland Observatory, made up of two guys and shares Gnarls Barkley penchant for dressing up on stage. The band is more of an idea that members Aaron Behrens and Thomas Ross Turner strive to constantly push the edges of genres. They have primal screams in “HFM,” pop sensibilities in “The Band Marches On,” and the dance-ready “Club Soda.” This is music that is meant to be experienced and sent pumping through your body. Just listening to it on an iPod or your computer doesn’t do it justice.  

“Asking for Flowers”
(Zoe Records)
Grade: B+ 

Edwards delves into a deeper area of her soul and unearths some of the post poignant and honest songs about relationships and creates lasting images in seemingly simple songs. In “Oil Man’s War,” she has a couple heading north to avoid fighting in a war and describes their dreams of opening up a store, starting a new life. It seems she has entered a new songwriting dimension that is more interested in the self-discovery of one’s soul instead of how bad dating can be. “Oh Canada” shows this when Edwards explains that ambivalence is worse than ignorance. But the album isn’t entirely dark. “The Cheapest Key” is pop music at its best. But in all, this is the Edwards we were all hoping to see. Rejoice, because she’s great and has something to say.

“Ghosts I-IV”
(Self release)
Grade A- 

A new dawn in the music industry is coming and its motto is “free.” Without any press or big advertising push, Trent Reznor of NIN released “Ghosts” online, giving 25 percent of it for free (“Ghost I”). The rest of the album, 36 tracks in all, can be bought on for a measly $5. What you get is a bevy of instrumental tracks that Reznor hashed out in a 10-week period with complete creative freedom (the only stipulation he gave himself was to be done in 10 weeks). It’s a fascinating listen, a flowing soundtrack with no words or meaning, but highlights Reznor’s talent of incorporating various instruments for his patented sound. The physical album drops on April 8 (and will come in various packages like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”). Till then, download the album (free or not) and let Reznor mess with your mind.