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Joanne Shaw Taylor—White Sugar(Ruf Records)

Despite often being lumped into a single category, the blues means something different to everyone. In the case of Joanne Shaw Taylor, the blues is a dirty guitar and a smooth voice.

Whether it’s a pun or a well-earned nickname, White Sugar is a silly name for an album, especially with Taylor’s blonde hair and light complexion peering out from behind it on the CD cover. But look past the corniness and there’s something deeper at play.

In a genre that leans heavily in one gender direction, it’s too easy to compare Taylor to someone like Bonnie Raitt or even Melissa Etheridge, though her fluid guitar mastery certainly echoes the former and her powerfully languid vocals are not entirely unlike the latter. Indeed, fans of either artist or any other artist of the past 20 years who straddled the line between commercialism and traditional blues.

If long, shuffling instrumental breaks with stunning guitar licks are your cup of tea, you could do a whole lot worse than songs like the album’s title track or “Blackest Day,” which closes out the album. Conversely, if you like hearing a voice alongside your guitars, the heartbreak found in “Just Another Word” is as perfect a hybrid as you’re likely to hear this year or any other.

Taylor’s website and CD booklet play up the girl next door with a guitar angle like a gimmick, which is something of a shame. Anyone able to look past that will find a serious artist worth exploring. White Sugar may seem sweet on the surface, but it’ll leave you with a deep toothache you won’t want to be rid of any time soon. —Crispin Kott

Joanne Shaw Taylor appears Saturday June 12 at the Rosendale Café, Rosendale

Mark Donato—A History of the Boys and Girls(Lorenzo and Betty Music/Rag and Bone Shop)

Mark Donato’s latest album, the charmingly quaint A History of the Boys and Girls, draws its title from an unfinished work by the late poet and author Delmore Schwartz, who in his lifetime influenced everyone from Saul Bellow to Robert Lowell to Lou Reed. It’s worth noting the disparate group of names in an effort to draw a parallel between the disparate sounds on this utterly wonderful collection of songs.

13 may be universally accepted as an unlucky number, but it’s right on the money for Donato, whose shaky voice serves as a strength rather than a weakness. Glorious harmonies abound, and it’s there where the most solid comparison reveals itself: Donato sounds kind of like George Harrison, only the Shy Beatle would have killed for catchy numbers like “Same Old Fall From Grace,” especially after the smashing success of his solo debut.

There are certainly Beatle undertones throughout, though Donato’s music is a sponge that’s picked up classic influences from the history of pop music. Recently deceased Alex Chilton can be heard, as can a bit of Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn. And lest it all seem slightly rockist, there’s also a bit of Caribbean rhythms here and there, as well.

The album does sag slightly midway through, with a grating vocal line near the end of “My Decision to Medicate” followed by “Parked on a Hill,” which only delivers on its strong chorus. Fortunately, the title track ambles in with a rhythm pulled straight from steps on a city street. Closing out the proceedings is “This is Where I Live,” a punchy and bright coda to a strong collection by a wonderful artist completely at home in his own skin. —Crispin Kott

The Hudson River Ramblers—Once Upon the Hudson(Berger Platters)

Creating an album that’s part music and part audiobook can’t be an easy undertaking, especially when the subject is the history of the Hudson River. Released last year to commemorate the Quadricentennial celebration of Henry Hudson’s historic voyage, Once Upon the Hudson successfully carries the listener back in time to get a sense of what it might have been like 400 years ago in the region which we call home.

The Hudson River Ramblers are duo, Rich Bala, folksinger, and Jonathan Kruk, storyteller. They’re joined on the album by fellow musicians who offer both musical and voice accompaniment, but this is really Bala and Kruk’s vision, one which they’ve utilized to widespread delight at events and schools for years.

Once Upon the Hudson utilizes real life characters such as Hudson, Robert Fulton, Captain Kidd and the native peoples of the region in telling its story, as well as music both of and akin to the music of the era. It’s tall tales told in an engaging, often humorous way, and it all happened in your own backyard.

The album might take some getting used to, especially hearing the language as it was way back when. And the story, if you’re not paying attention, might be difficult to keep up with. But it’s a journey well worth taking, whether you’re an avid historian, a novice Hudson River fan or even someone who just loves a good adventure. —Crispin Kott

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