Benji Hughes' debut: sweet melodies and vivid narratives

A Love Extreme, plus new releases by Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis, and Motown's pop machine

A Love Extreme

BENJI HUGHES

(New West)

Benji Hughes has a lumberjack beard, a major beer gut and long, blond hair that makes him look like a relic from the 1970s. He's a North Carolinian and on a record label with roots-rockers and alt-country luminaries Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, the Old 97's and Drive-By Truckers. Despite appearances, there's nothing remotely twangy about Hughes' winning debut album, A Love Extreme.

It's a psychedelic electro-pop affair buoyed by melodious, plaintive vocals that range from half sung to a soaring falsetto. His thinking-man's lyrics put the listener smack dab in the middle of post-millennium singledom. Hughes depicts himself as a loveable loser. His first-person tales deal with rejection, love won and recreational drug use — sometimes all in the same song.

Like a talented short fiction writer, Hughes peppers his narratives with vivid details. "You had a date with me, on April 17th/ I showed up at the Dairy Queen/ Where we were supposed to meet," Hughes intones on the kiss-off "You Stood Me Up." "I got there at 4:53, we were supposed to meet at 5/ I had a Butterfinger Blizzard and some fries."

But Hughes doesn't only chronicle the down times. He's that rare singer/songwriter who can make a fine song out of a good time. The bouncy, touching "I Went with Some Friends to See The Flaming Lips" adroitly encapsulates a night of 'shrooming, rolling, sweet tunes and holding the "girl that I love in my arms" — all in a mere 2:13. Sublime pop.

One quibble: The album is a double-discer but clocks in at only 70 minutes, with no discernible theme differentiating the two CDs. 3.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo

Two Men With the Blues

WILLIE NELSON & WYNTON MARSALIS

(Blue Note)

Willie and Waylon are no more. How 'bout Willie and Wynton? The country-pop legend joins the jazz trumpeter for an easygoing concert set of old-time, swinging blues on Marsalis' home turf: Jazz at Lincoln Center. It's an ear-friendly 54 minutes that offers nothing groundbreaking — but that's not the point. Willie and Wynton exhibit good chemistry while breezing through tunes like "Georgia on My Mind," "Stardust," "Bright Lights Big City," "Caldonia," "Night Life" and others of that ilk. Marsalis' clipped solos are complemented by those of saxophonist Walter Blanding and harmonic player Mickey Raphael (with a couple of brief forays courtesy of Willie's busted-up acoustic). Three decades after his landmark Stardust LP, Nelson's voice still maintains its ragged charm and understated swagger. Two Men With the Blues doesn't offer much in the way of emotional resonance; the performances are largely superficial but lively and fun. 3 stars —Eric Snider

The Motown Collection

VARIOUS ARTISTS

(Time Life)

As a kid, I heard Motown on the radio, and thought The Temptations, Supremes et al were corny. I wanted classic rock: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and such. In college, I was finally seduced by soul music, but it was of the gritty Southern variety: Stax/Volt, Atlantic, Al Green, etc. Then, about five years ago, in my mid-20s, I picked up a used Supremes hits collection and finally realized the genius of the Motown pop machine. Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Four Tops and Smokey Robinson anthologies soon found their way into my collection. But like the infomercial says, getting all the hits in one place is no easy task. This sprawling 10-CD/150-song compilation has it all — Martha & the Vandellas' "Heat Wave," Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours," Gaye's "What's Going On," Rick James' "Superfreak (Part 1)," as well as hits from my junior high prom days courtesy of Boyz II Men. They're all arranged tastefully in something close to chronological order. There's no booklet to contextualize Motown's historic legacy, which is a pity, but each double-CD jewel case does include liner notes with the essentials: lyrics, songwriting credits, release dates and Billboard chart positions. 4.5 stars —WT

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