POP/ROCK: Damon Albarn, "Dr Dee" (Virgin)

Albarn seems about as busy as a pop star can be. In March, the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz released "Rocket Juice & the Moon," a trippy Afro-funk disc he made with drummer Tony Allen and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; next month we'll see the fruit of his recent collaboration with the great soul singer Bobby Womack. And this summer, Blur is scheduled to play a massive concert at London's Hyde Park to end the Olympic Games.

Given that schedule, you might expect frenzy from "Dr Dee," the first album issued under Albarn's name since 2003. Instead, the record opens with the sound of birds and rushing water and grows only more contemplative from there. A studio companion to a so-called "English opera" that premiered last year in Manchester, "Dr Dee" explores the life and work of the Elizabethan polymath John Dee; it features Albarn on vocals along with contributions by Allen, guitarist Simon Tong (formerly of the Verve) and members of the BBC Philharmonic, among others. As music divorced from image, "Dr Dee" glitters intermittently. "Apple Carts" is as lovely (and bummed-out) a ballad as Blur's "No Distance Left to Run," while "Coronation" contains some gorgeously spooky choral singing. But extracting a narrative from these delicate sounds can feel like more trouble than they're worth -- even if you haven't half as much happening as Albarn does.



COUNTRY: Willie Nelson, "Heroes" (Legacy)

The second cut on his new album is the jaunty country-gospel of "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," with Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson. It's a fun little number that, of course, slyly alludes to Willie's well-known affection for weed, and, like most of the rest of "Heroes," it shows the 79-year-old legend can still hit the mark when he wants to.

OK, even Willie Nelson can't make Coldplay ("The Scientist") sound worthwhile. That misfire aside, he succeeds by keeping things in his wheelhouse, whether it's spare ballads accented by longtime accompanist Mickey Raphael's trademark high-lonesome harmonica or Western swing chestnuts ("My Window Faces the South," "Home in San Antone"). Likewise, the many guests elevate the proceedings, rather than seem superfluous, from Merle Haggard on a reprise of 1989's "A Horse Called Music" to Sheryl Crow on the country-soul of Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House" or Ray Price on "This Cold War With You."

For all the big names, however, the guest most prominently featured is Nelson's son Lukas. He wrote or co-wrote three of the 13 songs, sings on seven of them and sounds uncannily like his old man. We'd say that lends the album an element of torch-passing, except Willie doesn't sound ready to fade away. Nelson performs June 8 at Winstock in Winsted, Minn.