Sound Advice 

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Mindy Smith

Stupid Love


Buy if you like: Leigh Nash, Nanci Griffith

"There's no such thing as too much of a good thing," Mindy Smith sings on her latest album. Well, unfortunately, yes, there is. Stupid Love suffers from an overabundance of programmed enhancements that detract from the power these songs could have had if they'd been toyed with less. Smith, who had some success with her 2004 single "Come to Jesus," shares production duties with Ian Fitchuk and Justin Loucks, who really should have left more space between the notes. Instead, they cram every available spot with whatever sounds they can. Smith's girlish, delicate voice has helped win her airplay on country, Christian, adult alternative and adult contemporary stations, but half the time here, it's nearly overpowered by the clutter. Maybe in 10 years, they'll do a "naked" version of Stupid Love. I'll look forward to hearing "Telescope," "Take a Holiday" and some of these other cuts then. — Lynne Margolis

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Mark Mallman

Invincible Criminal

Badman Recording Co. / Release date: Aug. 18

Buy if you like: Ben Folds, Fountains of Wayne

Mark Mallman is a bit of a pop eccentric, an artist whose eclecticism and occasional quirkiness make him hard to pin down. His knowledge of popular music seems encyclopedic as he draws upon the melodic structures of the Beatles, the quirky hooks of synth-pop and pretty much every point in between. With Invincible Criminal, Mallman's command of the form shines through in the hyper piano pop of "Don't Spill the Bottle," the stately balladry of "Mercy Calls" and the spooky synth-laced "You're Never Alone in New York" (featuring a nice vocal assist from the Hold Steady's Craig Finn). The range of styles here verges on scattered, as if Mallman has more ideas than his songs can sometimes accommodate. But it's all pulled together by his sharp, playful, sometimes edgy lyrical perspective, as well as his genuine talent for packing his songs full of appealing hooks and clever melodic twists. — Alan Sculley

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Tommy Castro

Hard Believer


Buy if you like: B.B. King, Robert Cray

It's hard to make blues music sound original, but Tommy Castro pours so much energy into every cut on Hard Believer that he literally breathes new life into the genre. On his Alligator debut, Castro provides plenty of co-writes and well-chosen covers (including Wilson Pickett's "Ninety-Nine and One Half," Allen Toussaint's "Victims of the Darkness" and the Righteous Brothers' "My Babe"). But it's his solo-penned, funky "Monkey's Paradise" that really kicks the disc into high gear. From there on in, he doesn't let up, wailing the high notes — both vocally and with his delicious Fender — on "Backup Plan," then sliding into a spirited reading of Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," the clever economic-downturn blues of "Trimmin' Fat" and the keyboard-slammin' barn-burner, "Make It Back to Memphis." Hard Believer is a career high point for a player who deserves far more mainstream recognition. — Lynne Margolis


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