Low Cut Connie - "Private Lives" (Contender (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK) 1/2)

Back in January before the pandemic hit, Adam Weiner began the rollout toward the release of his band's sixth album with "Look What They Did," a sad-eyed piano lament about hard times and broken dreams in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The song sent out a signal that "Private Lives" was going to be something different for Low Cut Connie, a raucous rock and soul band whose sweaty, high-energy performances can mask the depth of Weiner's sharply observant songwriting.

With "Private Lives," Weiner's growth as an empathetic writer of never-facile character sketches is clear. It's there in his slow ones like "Look What They Did," which has a forlorn, mid-1970s Jackson Browne quality, "Quiet Time," featuring Philadelphia cellist and string arranger Larry Gold, and the gorgeous "Stay As Long As You Like," which closes the album on a tender note.

And it's also apparent in the more rugged and boisterous tunes, like the title cut (a nod to Noel Coward), the desperate emotional plea "Help Me," the dark and dreary "What Has Happened to Me," and the believe-in-yourself pep talk "Nobody Else Will Believe You," where Weiner communes with his inner Jerry Lee Lewis.

Low Cut Connie's winning streak of big-hearted songs with women's names in the title _ see "Beverly," "Me N Annie," "Oh Suzanne," and "Shake It Little Tina" _ continues with "Charyse," a driving rocker about a relationship that refuses to die even as both parties' lives fall apart.

With 17 songs on two LPs, "Private Lives" is expansive without ever being indulgent. It's well-paced entertainment that, like the Tough Cookies livestream performances Weiner has been staging since March from his South Philly home with guitarist Will Donnelly, invites the listener in for a private peek behind the curtain, then kicks into a public celebration. _ Dan DeLuca


Annie - "Dark Hearts" (Anniemelody, (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK) 1/2)

Since she debuted in 1999 with the Madonna-sampling "Greatest Hit," Annie has been consistently fabulous but sporadically present. "Dark Hearts" is only her third album _ her first since 2009's "Don't Stop" _ and it's full of nostalgic synth-pop and wistful club-pop. There's nothing here as bubblegummy as 2004's "Chewing Gum" or as epic as 2009's "Songs Remind Me of You." It's a darker album, although it still dazzles.

Annie has described the album as "the soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist." Songs such as "Forever '92," "American Cars" and "Corridors of Time" have the sweeping scope appropriate for a movie soundtrack: maybe for a John Hughes film, or a "Drive" (whose 2011 score has become a synth-pop touchstone), or "Twin Peaks" (Annie can sound a lot like Julee Cruise, and several tracks crib from Angelo Badalamenti'satmospheric arrangements).

The lyrics touch on personal upheavals. During "Dark Hearts'" long gestation process, the now 42-year-old Annie moved home from Berlin to her native Norway to be with her ailing mother, and she became the mother of two.

The album is full of overt nostalgic touches _ "Tunnel of Love"-era Bruce Springsteen on "The Streets Where I Belong," for instance. But "Dark Hearts" tweaks, updates and synthesizes its reference points enough that it all feels new.

Like her Swedish counterpart Robyn, Annie enjoys being cleverly self-reflexive. Several songs reference how songs can transport us into the past _ while doing just that. But Annie's vantage point is from the present, and it's good to have her back, here and now. _ Steve Klinge


The Brothers Osborne - "Skeletons" (EMI Nashville (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

"Ain't gonna turn it down, we're only gonna crank up," T.J. Osborne vows on "Lighten Up," the pounding anthem about defying the darkness _ literal and metaphorical _ that opens the new Brothers Osborne album.

T.J., the deep-voiced singer, and his brother John, the guitar slinger, certainly follow through on that promise. "Skeletons" offers more of the hard-edged but radio-ready country rock that has made them a critical and commercial success.

Semi-rapped verses and thundering choruses dominate in these songs, all of them written or co-written by the brothers. Amid a Waylonesque sing-along ("Back on the Bottle"), a one-night stand postmortem ("High Note"), and a blistering personal accusation ("Skeletons"), they slip in messages about tolerance ("Hatin' Somebody") and living life to the fullest ("Make It a Good One"). "Muskrat Greene," meanwhile, is a breakneck instrumental that shows off John's dazzling six-string skills.

On the fiddle- and accordion-accented "I'm Not for Everyone," T.J. sings, "I'm hard to like it's true, I'm a little more rough than smooth." Actually, that's a big part of the Osbornes' appeal. _  Nick Cristiano


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