'Sweet Warrior' paces new CDs

Two wicked curmudgeons and a vibrant musical voice from the great beyond are on our new releases radar screen. None are resting on their laurels. All three are delivering best-of-career performances.

COMBAT ZONE: Richard Thompson is finally plugged in again (for his first electric album in four years!) and armed for combat on "Sweet Warrior" (Shout! Factory, A). Tackling themes of conflict - both romantic and armed war - this brave, bitter man goes where few would dare, sketching situations and character studies that most musicians would find indefensible.

For one, the Celtic-flavored "Johnny's Far Away" describes a semi-functional, sexually unsatisfied couple. On being separated, both cheat, only to then reconvene and resign themselves to "the job of man and wife" and "the old comforts of the missionary life."

The deliciously sarcastic "Mr. Stupid" has a man growling to his former mate, "When your friends point out you're stuck with a Neanderthal for an ex/Don't fret about it darling, I still sign my names on checks." This one's romping rock tune evokes Thompson's classic "Wall of Death" and spotlights Judith Owen in the vocal harmony role that Thompson's former wife/partner Linda filled on the predecessor. (And no, they didn't separate kindly.)

On the political front, "Guns Are the Tongues" defines a Mata Hari-like vixen who lures men to her bed, only to convince them to blow themselves up for her holy war. And the harrowing "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" takes you into the heat of battle in Iraq, where a young soldier imprisoned in his "Humvee Frankenstein" ponders his impending doom. "With every bullet your risk increases/old Ali Baba, he's a different species."

When Thompson cranks up his take-no-prisoners guitar, you'll be diving under the seat as well.

LOUDON IS A WIT MAN: Loudon Wainwright III has always been one to sing his mind, regardless of consequences, like he's spouting off on the psychiatrist's couch or doing a stand-up comedy routine. (His now grown and equally famous son probably still hasn't forgiven dad for the juvenilia of "Rufus Is a Tit Man").

So no surprise that Wainwright senior is still acting out in his grouchy jokester way on "Strange Weirdos: Music From and Inspired by 'Knocked Up'" ( Concord, A).

Yet there are several things about this album that make it jump out of the stack.

Blessed with a big soundtrack budget (the score serves Judd Apatow's film follow-up to "The 40 Year Old Virgin"), Loudon got to work with some really terrific musicians (including Richard Thompson and Van Dyke Parks), plus producer/ collaborator Joe Henry.

The film is set in L.A., and the album's sound appropriates a California soft rock vibe, evocative of Jackson Browne's best work.

Oh, and Loudon's vocals (which often tend to the whiny) have never sounded sweeter and more comfortable.

Wainwright is still taking the outsider-looking-in perspective, But the film's comically developed subject matter (looming parenthood ruining young adults' plans) has nudged the singer/songwriter to take a more tongue-in-cheek approach to cultural mores on tunes like "Valley Morning," "Grey in L.A." and his killer mid-life crisis number, "Doing the Math."

Plus, for a change, Wainwright was willing to perform a couple of covers that fit the spirit beautifully. Bottom line: This is a soundtrack album that functions very well as a standalone album. Maybe Loudon's best.

A GREAT JOURNEY: I have to admit, I approached listening to Michael Brecker's "Pilgrimage" (Heads Up International, A) with some hesitation, maybe a little dread.

The album was recorded just a few months before the Philadelphia-spawned jazz saxophonist/composer's death on Jan. 13 from myelodysplastic syndrome (MODS) and leukemia. Brecker had been in a long downward spiral, then rallied briefly for the studio dates last August.

The sessions reconnected him with an all-star cast of friends and admirers: keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Patitucci.

I expected to hear him in weakened form or going out in a soft, sentimental, thanks-for-the-memories fashion. Much to the contrary, "Pilgrimage" finds Brecker pushing the envelope with a set of angular, highly lyrical and rhythmically intriguing originals.

The man still had work to do and lots to prove.

It's Brecker who's driving the other players to improvisational heights with a give-and-take that's never hesitant, always exciting and beautifully fleshed out, revealing new riches with repeated listens.

The ensemble's solving of Brecker's compositional puzzle "Anagram" may provide the most dynamic interplay of all. But there's also great intrigue and reward in tunes like the rigorously complex "The Mean Time," Latin-flavored "Five Months From Midnight" and urgent, mid-tempo "Tumbleweed."

Even when he slows for a ballad, like the plaintive "When Can I Kiss You Again?" (inspired by his teenage son's remark at the hospital bed), or the soft, samba-ish "Half Moon Lane," Brecker resists the easy or obvious or mawkish.

This was the album he knew he would be remembered for. And with help from his dear compatriots, he reached the mountaintop.

MORE TO SCORE: British-born Judith Owen has her own new set of classy, somber adult-pop singer/songwriter fare, "Happy This Way" (Courgette, B), that should appeal to fans of Kate Bush and Cassandra Wilson.

Cabaret cult faves Pink Martini strive to expand their international base with the multilingual outing "Hey Eugene" (Heinz, C+), even attempting a tune in Arabic. Too bad the effort falls flat. Arrangements and vocals are too homogenized.

In the abstract, a jazz-piano-and-banjo-plunking duo is hard to imagine. But Chick Corea and Bela Fleck's "The Enchantment" (Concord, B+) works shockingly well. (Catch them June 15 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside.)

Also coming to the area with new discs: alt-bluegrass darlin' Adrienne Young with "Room to Grow" (Addiebelle, B+), playing the Appel Farm fest this Saturday; the slash-and-burn, new-folk stylings of Great Lake Swimmers, "Ongiara" (Nettwerk, B), hitting Tin Angel June 8; and the comfortably familiar (hey, some things never change) dance pop of Erasure, served on "Light at the End of the World" (Mute, B-) and part of the True Colors tour at the Borgata June 15.

And from the compilation stack, the 40th anniversary "Summer of Love" festivities are exceedingly well served with "Just Like a Woman - Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs of the '60s" (RCA/Legacy, A). *