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New recordings: Steve Earle, DJ Khaled, Big Thief [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Steve Earle

"So You Wannabe an Outlaw"

(Warner Bros. (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

Steve Earle is such a skilled craftsman, such a savvy veteran song-maker, that even lesser efforts, like his 2015 all-blues excursion "Terraplane" and last year's collaboration with Shawn Colvin ("Colvin & Earle") are worth hearing. The Texas tunesmith hasn't really hit one in his sweet spot for quite some time, however, so "So You Wannabe an Outlaw" is most welcome. It's being hyped as his most country album in eons, which is true enough to a point but ultimately misleading. Despite the presence of Willie Nelson on the bona-fides-brandishing title cut, Johnny Bush on the swinging "Walking in L.A.," and a divorce duet with Miranda Lambert called "This Is How It Ends," "Outlaw" essentially works the same winning folk-to-rock-to-honky-tonk mishmash of American vernacular styles that has always animated Earle's work, albeit with a delivery that's grown gruffer over the years. That's true whether he's demonically rocking out on "Fixin' to Die" or paying tribute to his late mentor Guy Clark on "Goodbye Michelangelo" in this return to top form.

_Dan DeLuca

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DJ Khaled

"Grateful"

(Epic (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

Nobody has a talent for persuasion like DJ Khaled. With each summer album and anthemic single, the Miami-based, Palestinian American producer/DJ/host throws a party, invites a slew of featured big-name guests, and manages to get them to sing and rap over his light-as-Fluffernutter melodies while he yells, "We the best music" or, "Another one," a lot. Sometimes, it's a groovy, intimate affair, like Drake on the murky "To the Max." Sometimes, Khaled packs a clown car (the flighty "Down for Life") with as many as five pals (Future, Travis Scott, Kodak Black, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Rick Ross), and it's a slapstick mess.

The sultry, boastful "Shining" features Beyonce and Jay Z. "I'm the One" has Justin Bieber at his muskiest, with Quavo, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne along for the rough ride. The extra-long "Grateful's" most winning moments come with its most understated elements, like when Rihanna does her usual Eartha Kitt purr against a Carlos Santana guitar sample on "Wild Thoughts," or the down-tempo Calvin Harris/Travis Scott/Jeremih collaboration "Don't Stop." After that, talents like Nicki Minaj, Migos, and more get caught in a maelstrom of dance-hop that's funked up but sameish. Aural wallpaper punctuated by the host's loutish shouts is good, but not great. Another one?

_A.D. Amorosi

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Big Thief

"Capacity"

Saddle Creek (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

Big Thief's "Masterpiece" was one of last year's most exciting debuts, bristling with fraught emotions, dissonant electric guitars, and assertive vocals. "Capacity," the Brooklyn quartet's surprisingly quick follow-up, is even better: It's more varied and complex, with sturdier melodies and moments of stirring beauty.

Like PJ Harvey, Adrianne Lenker explores raw-nerve territory, and the imagery often has elements of nightmarish fairy tales. Although the guitars occasionally amplify the intensity as they did on "Masterpiece," for the most part, the arrangements favor contained tension over cathartic aggression. Lenker has noted a youthful fondness for Iron & Wine, and you can hear a similar folk-rock precision in "Mythological Beauty" and "Black Diamonds." "Mary" is an extended piano-based ballad that Lenker sings tenderly and deliberately. It's the most striking and captivating song on the album, but not by much.

_Steve Klinge

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