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Album reviews: George Thorogood, Skip Denenberg, Downtown Boys [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Skip Denenberg

"The Morningstar Sessions"

(skipdenenberg.com, (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK) 1/2 stars)

Skip Denenberg opens "The Morningstar Sessions" with "His Old Tattoo," using that image of ink on an arm to weave a moving tale of love and loss. It's an exquisite piece of writing, set to an equally warm and inviting folk-rock arrangement, and it sets the tone for the album. The veteran Philadelphia singer-songwriter also writes winningly about relationships in numbers such as "I Think About Us (The Wedding Song)" and the infectious, banjo-inflected "Emmylou," while the reflective "September" has a fittingly autumnal air. Denenberg also displays a deft comic touch on "My Pet Peeve (The Valentine Song)," and "The Ballad of Tex Cobb" is a rousing country-rocker about the hard-living boxer and actor. He also injects some bite with the accusatory "You Talk a Good Game" and "Wages of Spin," In which he manages to sound topical without being too specific, a subtle approach that gives the songs more lasting and universal power.

- Nick Cristiano

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Downtown Boys

"Cost of Living"

(SubPop, (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK) 1/2 stars)

"A wall is a wall, a wall is just a wall," Victoria Ruiz snarls at the start of "Cost of Living," the third album by the hellacious Providence, R.I., rock and roll band Downtown Boys. "And nothing more at all." That lyric doesn't refer specifically to the barrier along the U.S-Mexico border proposed by Donald Trump because it's about something bigger than that. It's a statement of refusal to be boxed in, an expression of free will and an anthem of communal determination from a fired-up five-piece band of independent spirit and mind that, at their most ferocious, sounds as if there's nothing that can hold them back. "Cost of Living" was produced by Guy Picciotto, the singer and guitarist formerly of Washington, D.C., punk firebrands Fugazi, and he helps the group sharpen their sound to a razor's edge, whether singing in Spanish on the loud and proud "Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)" or promising that a fight for equality will get nasty if necessary on "Lips That Bite." Ruiz is a force to be reckoned with on stage and in the studio, and when she expresses her impatience on "It Can't Wait," she connects with the legacy of great punks of yore going back to Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer while staking out the Downtown Boys' claim as a great politically engaged band in the highly contentious here and now.

- Dan DeLuca

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George Thorogood

"Party of One"

(Rounder, (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK) stars)

This album of solo, primarily acoustic blues has been a long time coming. All of George Thorogood's 16 LPs since his 1977 debut have been with some version of his band, the Delaware Destroyers (although the "Delaware" was dropped early on). Thorogood, now 67, returns to his roots, although he never strayed too far: His brand of hard-rocking, party-hearty blues has always been an homage to icons such as John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Hank Williams. Those are also among the artists he covers on "Party of One," along with songs by Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan. It's a showcase for his growling vocals and, especially, his deeply felt guitar playing, whether he's rocking an electric guitar on "Got To Move" or digging into an acoustic with a slide on the "The Sky Is Crying," both Elmore James compositions. The selections aren't very surprising, and there's even a stark version of one of his early signature songs, Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." But after four decades of amped-up recordings, it's rewarding to hear Thorogood toned down and relaxed.

- Steve Klinge

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