Bring on Grand Banality

Elvis Costello "All This Useless Beauty" (WB)

Umm, well ... the title is appropriate. After new wave, country and western, chamber music and, most recently, blues, Elvis the Englishman has landed in the territory of his compatriot and brother in spectacles, Elton John. The album is very pop, very sentimental, lyrically above average, but clearly lacking in the grand banality that gives pop its entertainment value. Apart from two up-tempo numbers, "Shallow Grave" and "Starting to Come to Me," the album is pretty bleak and boring -- but I suspect most of Costello fans don't look for fun anyway.

Garik Sukachev "Pesni s Okrainy" (Flamingo)

Formerly the lead singer with Brigada S and currently the frontman of the supergroup, The Untouchables, Garik Sukachev is one of the most distinctive voices on the Moscow rock scene. "Songs from the Suburbs" is his "deeply personal" solo project, inspired by childhood memories of 1960s-era Soviet suburbia. Waltz, polka, tango, accordion sound and sentimental mood -- all these nostalgic styles can be found on the album. Yet Garik's work is more than just cover songs; most of the songs are original, written and performed to recapture the spirit of old Moscow courtyards. This is an incredibly warm record, the one Tom Waits would make if he was a Russian.

Cissy Houston "Face to Face" (House of Blues)

Besides being the mother of Whitney, Cissy Houston is, together with Aretha Franklin, one of the finest African-American female vocalists around. "Face to Face" is her gospel album, although there are only a couple of your typical foot-stomping, choir-screaming hymns. The rest, as the title suggests, are rather intimate and personal songs, ranging in style from soul ballads to jazz and even blues. The latter, of course, is an unusual combination, as many gospel purists still consider the blues "Devil's music." I am not a connoisseur of gospel, so I can't compare this music with other albums from the genre, but Houston's great voice and passionate performance are enough for me to rate it top-class.

Squirrel Nut Zippers "Hot" (Mammoth)

Another exciting piece of musical Americana here. SNZ are a little big band from South California dedicated to reviving the sound and spirit of Southern pop songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike Leon Redbone, the only other artist I know of using the same approach, they perform all their own material, but just like old Leon, they do it with love and a great deal of irony. Consider them a Post-Modernist Heritage Preservation Band. Quite conceptual, but still swinging.