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Album reviews: Khalid, Randy Newman, Gina Sicilia [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Khalid

"American Teen"

(RCA (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

In the spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. For Khalid Robinson, a 19-year-old El Paso-born pop-hop kid, however, such woozy thinking - come summer - is ripe with dire desolation, unrequited romance, vicious head trips, messy break-ups, and weed. Ah, late teendom. Performed before a blustery bank of silvery New Wave-y synths, gurgling sequencers, and sprightly rhythms ("8TEEN" being the most high-energy), the breathy, rough-hewn singer- songwriter tackles confessional, cutting-edge soul with a sort of mawkish, insecure sway so apt for his age. "I'm not the best at showing my emotions," he sings on "Another Sad Love Song," a tale of muzzled relationships in league with similar "American Teen" tunes such as the moody ballad "Cold Blooded" and the commitment-phobic "Young Dumb & Broke." For all the soulful, doleful hanging at the corner of Heartbreak & Whine, American Teen is a glad-to-be-unhappy, mini-masterpiece of a debut about growing up and out of adolescence in the present day. Only the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" capture the blemishes and buoyancy of youth with such zeal, melody and unique vision. Good job.

_A.D. Amorosi

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Gina Sicilia

"Tug of War"

(Blue Elan (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

When Gina Sicilia was growing up in Newtown, Bucks County, her original musical inspiration was the blues, yet from her first album a decade ago, the singer has shown a masterful ability to transcend the borders of the genre while still being rooted in it. It's an approach that echoes Bonnie Raitt's, although Sicilia has already firmly established a compelling voice of her own, as "Tug of War" reaffirms. From the battle-scarred "Damaging Me" to the defiant "I'll Stand Up" and the hopeful, gospel-tinged "Heaven," her writing cuts as deep, and commands as much attention, as her smoky alto. That dynamic depth of expression extends to her handling of outside material. Sicilia adds some bluesy bite to country great Harlan Howard's "He Called Me Baby" and the Exciters' pop classic "Tell Him," and she slows the Beatles' breakneck "All My Loving" to a smoldering near-ballad, lending almost a desperate edge to the sweet yearning of the original.

_Nick Cristiano

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Randy Newman

"Dark Matter"

(Nonesuch (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

Randy Newman's first album of new songs in nine years is a doozy. The epic, eight-minute opening track, "The Great Debate," stages a heated back-and-forth argument about global warming, religion, science, and faith among philosophers, astrophysicists, and true believers, all voiced by the songsmith, who also plays a songwriter named "Mr. Newman." In addition, there's a song about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that includes imagined conversations between John F. and Robert F. Kennedy (plus a tribute to salsa singer Celia Cruz), a tune about the two different bluesmen who went by the name Sonny Boy Williamson, and a jaunty number that mocks Vladimir Putin. "Dark Matter" is decorated with gorgeous string arrangements and delivered with the melodic grace that has marked Newman's many successes in scoring and writing hits for Disney-Pixar animated films. But instead of saccharine sentiment, it returns to the wickedly comic, satiric ways that marked 1970s and 1980s albums like "Good Old Boys" and "Trouble in Paradise." All that is great news for Newman fans, though it must be said that there are so many ideas banging around on "Dark Matter's" songs (and so many characters voiced by the same 73-year-old songwriter) that it can make your brain hurt. Thankfully, toward the end of the album, the focus shifts to simple, and simply beautiful, songs, like the open-hearted "She Chose Me" and the achingly sad "Wandering Boy."

_Dan DeLuca

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