Gary Allan, "Get Off on the Pain" (MCA Nashville)

The defiantly downbeat title track hits hard lyrically and musically: "I ain't really happy until the sky starts driving rain," Allan spits out over tough, rock-edged honky-tonk. After that killer start, he continues his drift from progressive traditionalism toward a more mainstream Nashville sound. The most successful cuts include the swaggering rocker "That Ain't Gonna Fly" and the atmospheric "Along the Way," the one number that makes good use of strings. The best, however, is the finale. "No Regrets" is totally different in tone from "Get Off on the Pain," but the stark, acoustic-textured arrangement makes this number, inspired by the 2004 suicide of his wife, just as powerful.



Brad Mehldau, "Highway Rider" (Nonesuch)

The ambitious pianist/composer's latest is a reunion with producer Jon Brion and percussionist Matt Chamberlain, who joined Mehldau's trio on 2002's eclectic "Largo." Mehldau has upped the ante by adding saxophonist Joshua Redman and a full orchestra for a sprawling double CD that might be his most fully realized work yet.

What's striking is how much the album feels like two disciplines, jazz and classical, on equal footing. For the most part -- notably on the epic "We'll Cross the River Together" -- Mehldau and Redman engage a battery of horns, strings and percussion in a lively conversation. A simmering, searching duet between the two jazz stars on "Old West" is another highlight, as is Mehldau's teaming with trio mates Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on the twitchy "Into the City." Full of unexpected twists and lush, evocative detours, "Highway Rider" is most definitely a trip well worth taking.

Mehldau's trio performs April 6-7 at the Dakota.