Twelve (Columbia) £12.99
Late in his career, Johnny Cash made a series of landmark covers. You'd have hoped for a similar dynamism and gravitas from Patti Smith, one of rock's fearless figures. Instead, Twelve zigzags between pointless classicism and questionable choices. Tears for Fears' megalomaniacal 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' is never anything more than mild-mannered, while a cover of Neil Young's 'Helpless' brooks no surprises. But 'Are You Experienced?' benefits from Smith's Dionysian treatment and her interjections on 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' are a thrill, rendering the rest of this record even more of a missed opportunity.
Armchair Apocrypha (Fargo) £11.99
Andrew Bird picked up his first violin aged four. Now, nearly 30 years later, he's mastering a whole bank of instruments on his seventh album, and doing some fine whistling to boot. But Armchair Apocrypha , although it is full of virtuoso touches - the sense of impending doom on 'Fiery Crash', the singalong chorus ('Thank God it's fatal') on 'Heretics' - never quite manages to sustain its promise. Bird is a darkly humorous lyricist and his arrangements can be satisfyingly complex, but, as a whole, the album feels oddly shackled and, at times, just a tiny bit dull.
23 (4AD) £11.99
New York-based trio Italian brothers Amadeo and Simone Pace and Amadeo's Japanese wife Kazu Makino continue on the eccentric indie-pop path. Makino's angelic vocals soar over towering soundscapes of ambient synths and throbbing guitars. Despite its strangely euphoric melancholia, this is one of the more accessible of Blonde Redhead's seven releases, with perfect pop moments, notably 'Silently', which somehow recalls Abba's 'Winner Takes it All'. Songs sung by Amadeo do not reach Makino's spooky heights, with the final result alternating between monotonous and mesmeric.
It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land (V2) £11.99
Grunge's criminally ignored Mark Lanegan now finds himself much in demand. This is thanks to some canny collaborations: as the perfect fit for Queens of the Stone Age's rock brinkmanship and the perfect foil for Isobel Campbell's folky cooing. But this partnership with Stoke remixers Soulsavers is a step too far. Their gloomy chill-out may be respectfully subdued, but alongside a voice that could make deserts weep, it sounds trite. The best moments here are stripped down so you hardly notice the studio trickery. The rest is awkward grungetronica, an idea that should have been nipped in the bud.
Alevanta! (Riverboat) £11.99
As singer with Spanish band Radio Tarifa, Escoriza has won a legion of fans for his gritty vocal stylings and flamboyant stage performances. Like Tarifa, this solo debut draws on the musical hinterland that stretches north and south of the Spanish-North African straits, a tumble of Moorish, Sephardic and Flamenco traditions. The songs, all by Escoriza, are treated to exquisite backings from intricate guitars, tango accordion, lute and flute, plus the odd crumhorn and lashings of flamenco handclaps. Escoriza sings with his usual fire, crooning lines like: 'Your eyes have such cruelty in the morning.' A spicy paella of a record.
European Songbook (Minor Music) £11.99
Born in the Ivory Coast, raised in France and living in Germany, Cecile Verny sings these 16 songs in French, English and scat. It's the kind of enterprise that could easily go horribly wrong but she brings such a light touch to it, and the arrangements are so beautifully poised, that this is my vocal album of the year so far. With songwriters ranging from Kurt Weill to Toots Thielemans, arrangements by the likes of Michael Abene and Michael Gibbs, and a wonderfully responsive six-piece band, it adds up to an hour of constant surprise and gentle delight.