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Listen Up reviews: Rick Ross, Cassie, Gin Blossoms, et al.

Here are the albums reviewed in Tuesday's USA TODAY Listen Up section:

> Miami rapper Rick Ross has skills but covers overly familiar drug-trade ground on his debut, according to Steve Jones.

> Steve feels hot newcomer Cassie is "engaging" but has vocal limitations.

> Elysa Gardner finds commendably "breezy carnality and yearning" in the grooves of Toby Lightman's new album.

> Brit hard-rockers Towers of London "offer transcendent trashiness" but overall display a "shoddy facade," Edna Gundersen declares.

> Edna feels the tunes on Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians' reunion record are "smart, spunky but not creatively strange enough to stand out" from the pack.

> The Gin Blossoms are back and their new songs "recapture the easy bounce" of their earlier hits, Elysa attests.

> Country singer Rodney Atkins displays palpable authenticity on his new hit album, Brian Mansfield says.

> Gospel icon Vickie Winans has a double album (half studio, half live) that Steve Jones is mightily impressed by.

Full, unabridged reviews (full-length versions that incorporate a few lines cut for space from the print version) follow:

Rap: Rick Ross, Port of Miami (* * * out of four)

Ross’ ubiquitous anthem, Hustlin’, raised anticipation for the Miami rapper’s debut. He taps into the pulse of the streets with his hardcore tales of a drug dealer’s life on the grind. With the help of muscular production from the likes of Jazze Pha and Cool & Dre and cameos from Akon (Cross That Line) and Lyfe Jennings (It’s My Time), Ross colorfully chronicles his lifestyle with swaggering menace. Def Jam president Jay-Z and labelmate Young Jeezy (who similarly repped Atlanta last year) raise the ante on the Hustlin’ remix. Still, this is an overall case of style over substance, with Ross’ charismatic flows over dope beats standing in for originality. While he paints a vivid portrait of the grimy side of Miami, the cocaine trade is exhaustively traveled thematic territory. — Steve Jones

R&B: Cassie (* *)

The 19-year-old Connecticut native makes the transition from print-ad model to singer thanks to some infectious beats and her own girl-next-door charm. Her sexy single Me & U has stayed at or near the top of the charts most of the summer, and she boasts several other tracks in a similar vein. The sassy Long Way 2 Go finds her putting the brakes on a would-be paramour, while the sweet Just One Nite finds her surrendering to passion. Though her voice is limited, she’s engaging enough to keep things interesting. — Jones

Pop/rock: Toby Lightman, Bird on a Wire (* * *)

Lightman’s honey-and-whiskey vocals and blues-based sensibility may evoke a younger Joan Osborne, but the tunes on this follow-up to 2004’s Little Things offer a more pronounced R&B flavor. Veteran pop producers Bill Bottrell and Patrick Leonard burnish Lightman’s rootsy songs with a light, sure hand, letting her breezy carnality and yearning shine through the funk-kissed fervency of Don’t Let Me, the soulful dreaminess of Slipping and the inspirational bolero One Sure Thing. — Elysa Gardner

Towers of London, Blood, Sweat and Towers (* *)

A provocative counterpoint to Britpop’s witty, twee and mannered strains, Towers of London’s glam-coated ’70s punk and blustery ’80s hair metal offer transcendent trashiness in hook-laden tracks from the supremely dumb Air Guitar to a gnashing Kill the Pop Scene. But the goofball decadence and power-chord excess come amid too many misfires, most notably the bloated King and lackluster Northern Lights. Good Times flatly isn’t. The band’s mock-rock gets tiresome, exposing Towers’ shoddy facade. — Edna Gundersen

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Stranger Things (* * 1/2)

A quick recap: Brickell and company burst into view with quirky hit What I Am,from 1989 debut Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, then vanished after 1990’s Ghost of a Dog. Brickell had solo albums and babies (as Mrs. Paul Simon) during the hiatus before reconnecting with her Austin-based pals to begin forging tunes casually in 2001. Momentum quickened in 2005 with the arrival of producer/engineer Bryce Goggin, who extracts pleasant but unremarkable results on this agreeable comeback. Brickell’s cheery vocals and Kenny Withrow’s stringent guitar lines enliven funk-kissed vignettes and character studies. Stranger Things has a host of relaxed compositions that are smart, spunky but not creatively strange enough to stand out in the crowded field of serviceable pop tunes. — Gundersen (Clip)

The Gin Blossoms, Major Lodge Victory (* * *)

If you miss the sweet, simple pleasures of early-’90s guitar-pop — the non-grungy variety, that is — this collection of honeyed rockers from the reunited Blossoms is just the ticket to ride. Buoyant, ingratiating tunes such as Learning the Hard Way, Long Time Gone and Let’s Play Two recapture the easy bounce of past hits such as Found Out About You and Follow You Down. The new songs won’t change your life any more than their predecessors did, but they will bring you back to a more carefree, comforting era, in music and in general. — Gardner

Country: Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell (* * *)

Some country singers sound as if they get their descriptions of small-town life from old TV shows, but Atkins sings about rural settings with the familiar ease of someone who’s lived there. More than the sum of his stereotypes, he gets his chart-topping single from a Winston Churchill quote, mentions The Ballad of Curtis Loew in his short list of Skynyrd songs, and sings about earth-plowing, sweet-tea-sipping men who teach their sons to pray and to cuss without really intending to do either. Atkins’ farm-boy voice struggles to wrap itself around the torchy melody of Invisibly Shaken, but when he tells his daughter’s first date that when they get back he’ll still be up cleaning his gun — now, that’s convincing. — Brian Mansfield

Gospel: Vickie Winans, Woman to Woman: Songs of Life (* * * 1/2)

Winans has long been one of gospel’s most dynamic stars, and on this two-disc, 33-song opus she proves to be one of the most versatile as well. This is also probably the most personal of her 20-year career, drawing on her own life’s turmoil to offer inspiration to women who may be struggling with troubles of their own. The first disc, an 18-track studio album, is highlighted by powerful ballads and upbeat praise hymns by a roster of stellar producers, including her sons Mario “Yellowman” Winans and Marvin “Coconut” Winans Jr. The second, recorded live before 10,000 people at Chicago’s House of Hope, is hosted by Bishop T.D. Jakes and captures Winans at her show-stopping best. For her, life is a song worth singing. — Jones

Comments

Gin Blossoms are sorely needed. Melodic rock with lamentful hooks are far and few between these days. I long for the early 90s and the wind swept breezy-ness of the music that made my head bounce with a smile on my face. Who's next ... The Refreshments?

Posted by: Patrick | Aug 8, 2006 10:47:50 AM

Really glad to see that Edie Brickell is back on the scene. Her first album was really great (Shooting rubberbands at the moon) I am sure this album will due great because she is such a great singer and has depth and personal conviction when she sings. She coUld also "pump-up" her exposure by touring with her husband Paul Simon.... think of them as the future "Wings" ala American Style....LOL!

Posted by: Timmdogg | Aug 8, 2006 11:34:45 AM

I remember seeing Gin Blossoms on Letterman singing "Hey Jealousy" when the CD first came out. It was catchy and happy and self-loathing all at once. Kind of like me. Ha. Anyway, without the late Doug Hopkins writing for them I'm not sure, but I might give the new disc a shot.

Posted by: Warren | Aug 8, 2006 2:46:45 PM

I've already picked up the new Gin Blossoms disc, and it sounds like they never went away. Robin's voice sounds better than ever, and the tunes are crisp and tight. I enjoyed the Blossoms a lot in the 90s, and I'm thrilled that they're back on the scene.

Posted by: Michael | Aug 9, 2006 4:01:27 AM

Steve, I totally agree about Cassie...Did anyone catch her performance on BET's 106 and Park yesterday? She was TERRIBLE!!

Posted by: NB | Aug 9, 2006 11:37:43 AM

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