Elton John pauses for a glance back

Elton John

"The Captain & the Kid" (Interscope)

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ELTON JOHN has nothing to prove. Over his four decades as a pop artist, he's scored hit tunes and albums many times over, become a celebrated concert performer and written songs for popular films and Broadway productions. He's been embraced by the queen of Britain and the creators of "South Park" -- knighted by the former and animated by the latter.

And he's hardly some dusty relic; he keeps up with the kids like few other veterans, even co-writing and playing piano on a recent single for glam-pop's Scissor Sisters. Yet "The Captain & the Kid" (in stores Tuesday) is a total nostalgia trip. This sequel to "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" is a fearlessly mature rumination, a pause to reflect for the erstwhile Pinball Wizard and longtime lyricist sidekick Bernie Taupin -- just like that 1975 concept album, which came at the peak of John's first wave of phenomenal success.

This exercise in blending timeless and contemporary is by turns breezy and somber as it laments losses to AIDS and other untimely killers ("Blues Never Fade Away") and celebrates the eternal warts-and-all personality of New York ("Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way"). Crisply produced by Matt Still and John, the album exudes the self-referential intimacy of its predecessor, as Taupin drops in enough old personae and personal-history touchstones to boggle even hard-core fans.

John's nimble piano work and supple singing dominate pretty-to-rollicking numbers that flow as effortlessly as the duo's musical/lyrical give-and-take. Yet the basic, smooth pop feels too genteel, with flashes of country, roadhouse rock and funk only hinting at John's legendary versatility.

Likewise, Taupin's metaphors can be surprisingly generic for a man whose oblique writing style has allowed John to turn specific personal events -- like the relationship travails and related near-suicide in the 1975 album's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" -- into songs personally meaningful to any listener. The new collection's first single, "The Bridge," achieves the same effect with John's solitary vocal testament, but its big, shiny metaphor for meeting life-changing challenges is not very subtle.

Natalie Nichols


Feistiness shines through in duets

Jerry Lee Lewis

"Last Man Standing" (Artists First)

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THE wonder of this all-star effort (in stores Sept. 26) isn't so much that producers Jimmy Rip and Steve Bing (yes, the multimillionaire film producer) brought in so much rock and country music royalty to join the Killer on his first studio release in more than a decade. It's that they succeeded in capturing him sounding more feisty and singularly expressive at 70 than anyone could reasonably imagine.

The astute part of these big-name duets comes both in the song selection and in how many of his partners constitute graduates of the Jerry Lee Lewis school for musical mavericks: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (on separate tracks), Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, John Fogerty and, gulp, Kid Rock. That his piano is placed front and center in the mix shows just how nimble his musicianship remains.

For the most part the material is smartly chosen and age appropriate, starting with the reverb-laden, Sun Records-style treatment given Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," with Page sizzling the guitar part, and extending into the bone-deep country of "Couple More Years" (with Willie Nelson) and "Don't Be Ashamed of Your Age" (with George Jones).

The key exception is his run-through (with Ringo Starr) of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little 16," which just sounds creepy when sung by a septuagenarian. Thematically he's in step with the Band's "Twilight" (helped by Robbie Roberston's signature guitar work), but the arrangement doesn't quite suit his temperament. Much better is the swaggering country rock of "Evening Gown" (with Jagger and Ron Wood), the bluesy "You Don't Have to Go" (with Young) and a fiery "Hadacol Boogie" (with Buddy Guy).

Could this have been a leaner, meaner collection with "just" 14 or 15 tracks instead of 21? Sure. But then, Lewis' whole career has been all about glorious, raging excess.

Randy Lewis


This underdog comes out on top

Tego Calderon

"The Underdog/El Subestimado" (Jiggiri/Atlantic)

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This respected Puerto Rican rapper may be an underdog, but he's hardly underestimated, as suggested by the Spanish title of his long-awaited new album. On the contrary, Calderon has been the focus of high expectations, especially because it's been four years since his last studio album.

Calderon returns with this edgy, original and deeply personal record that sets him (or rather, keeps him) apart in the field. Rising above reggaeton's numbing repetitiveness, Calderon embraces a much wider musical spectrum -- from Puerto Rican bomba and salsa dura to Jamaican dancehall and reggae, all over a barrio-hardened base of Afro-Latin hip-hop.

Those styles have always colored Calderon's pan-Caribbean palette. A lesser artist might have jumped on the reggaeton bandwagon, but Calderon is too grounded in his own identity and artistic vision to cater to trends, or to label pressure to include more English material.

"Underdog" is a challenging album, peppered with island slang and insular cultural references that will stump even the average Spanish speaker. Calderon delivers his rap in a gruff, hoarse and almost atonal voice, drenched in a typical island accent that swallows vowels and munches syllables.

The accent adds a frightful dimension to "Oh, Dios," a tune that spews Calderon's resentments about a real-life custody battle over one of his children. He expresses sulfurous animosity for the mother and a legal system he considers skewed against fathers.

He isn't always angry, offering a longing tribute to his late father ("A Mi Papa") and thrillingly mixing salsa with reggaeton in a tune featuring salsa singer Oscar D'Leon ("Llora, Llora").

Calderon also delights in dissing his reggaeton rivals in the first single "Mate," which mocks machismo with a warbling, chipmunk-sounding sample from an old Mexican folk song, "El Preso No. 9."

By turns compassionate, bitter, outraged and funny, "The Underdog" represents the artistic triumph of contemporary Afro-Latin urban culture in this country.


Agustin Gurza


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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