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New albums: Kesha; Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer; Paul Kelly [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Kesha

"Rainbow"

(RCA / Kemosabe (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

It's hard not to root for Kesha, the over-the-top pop star who is still stuck in the middle of a never-ending legal battle with her former producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald (she accused him of sexual and emotional abuse in 2014). After expressing her frustration on a F- the World tour in 2016, the "Tik Tok" and "Die Young" singer (both of those songs, by the way, were cowritten and produced by Dr. Luke) has carried on with this set of empowerment anthems and stylistically varied party tracks that send a clear message that she's now the one in charge.

"Rainbow" is arresting from the start, with the clenched-fist opener "Bastards," a statement of purpose that vows to get on with it ("I could fight forever, but life's too short") before building from a solo guitar strum to an affirmative power ballad crescendo. "Woman" is profane and proud, putting the Dap-Kings' horns employed by the late Sharon Jones to righteous and rousing use, as Kesha declares her independent womanhood in celebratory terms. And "Hymn" ("for the hymnless") is nearly as effective as a communal rallying cry for the marginalized.

For the most part, the multicolored "Rainbow" is winningly eclectic, though it has moments of banality, with "Praying" and the title track. What-will-she-do-next unpredictability largely serves her well, however. One minute the singer is pairing up with heavy rock outfit Eagles of Death Metal on the chugging "Boogie Feet"; the next, she's teaming up with Dolly Parton for a remake of "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle to You)," a 1980 hit for the country queen that turns out to have been written by Kesha's mother, Pebe Sebert. - Dan DeLuca

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Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

"Not Dark Yet"

(Thirty Tigers (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have never sung together on the two dozen albums they've recorded between them. And though they both are standout songwriters, on this initial collaboration - a second is planned - the Alabama-born siblings almost exclusively stick to covers, picking and choosing masterfully for the most part, from Bob Dylan's sensitively rendered title cut and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires' haunting "The Color of a Cloudy Day" to rootsy classics by the Louvin Brothers, Jessi Colter, and Merle Haggard, and unexpected choices from the Killers, Nick Cave, and Nirvana. (The latter's "Lithium" is the only misstep on the album, which was expertly produced by Teddy Thompson.) The country-soul sisters save the most powerful moment for last with their own deeply moving "Is It Too Much," addressing the tragedy they witnessed as teenagers when their father killed their mother and himself, and asking a question that only they can answer: "Is it too much to carry in your heart?" - Dan DeLuca

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Paul Kelly

"Life Is Fine"

(Cooking Vinyl (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

For such a prolific songwriter, it's a bit ironic that Paul Kelly names his new album after the one song he didn't write. "Life Is Fine" has lyrics by the poet Langston Hughes. That oddity aside, the album maintains the Australian's typically high standards.

"Life Is Fine" showcases Kelly's ability to display depth and range in seemingly effortless fashion. At one end of the musical spectrum, "Finally Something Good" and "Josephina" have a light, infectious pop touch, and at the other, "My Man's Got a Cold" is raw, percussive blues (it's sung by Vika Bull, who along with her sister Linda provides muscular backup vocals throughout).

Numbers such as the rocking "Rising Moon" and "Firewood and Candles" reveal Kelly's gift for narrative storytelling, while "I Smell Trouble" is mesmerizingly evocative. And on "Leah: The Sequel," Kelly again looks to another writer, but instead of borrowing words, he uses Roy Orbison's "Leah" as inspiration for a tale of his own, which turns out to be nearly as beguiling as the original. - Nick Cristiano

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