North Mississippi Allstars, "Keys to the Kingdom" (Songs of the South)

Producer/musician Jim Dickinson was a gentlemanly maverick who served as the unofficial historian and advocate for the most deeply imbedded strands of Southern music. His death in 2009 was a huge blow, especially to his family, which includes his sons Luther and Cody. They're the core members with bassist Chris Chew of the North Mississippi Allstars, who have been recording blues-steeped rock, soul and gospel for more than a decade. The death of the Dickinson patriarch and the birth three months later of Luther Dickinson's child inform the trio's best album since its 2000 debut, "Shake Hands With Shorty."

"Keys to the Kingdom" moves from anger ("This A'Way," "Jumpercable Blues") to acceptance ("How I Wish My Train Would Come," "Hear the Hills"). Along the way there are potent collaborations with Mavis Staples on the gospel testifying of "The Meeting" and Ry Cooder on the sobering conviction of "Ain't No Grave." The album wraps with rollicking, randy takes on mortality ("New Orleans Walkin' Dead," "Jellyrollin' All Over Heaven") and a haunting coda by Jim Dickinson's favorite piano player, Spooner Oldham.


Jessica Lea Mayfield, "Tell Me" (Nonesuch)

A small voice and a steady gaze are the weapons of choice for Mayfield, a sort of gothic country singer from Kent, Ohio. Her second album is full of barbed confessions and bittersweet confections, songs that come on softly but leave behind a disquieting feeling. Sometimes she's implicating herself in an unwise decision, or a series of them. Sometimes she's implicating someone else.

Mayfield came up in a family bluegrass band, and there's a hint of high lonesome behind her languid drawl. But her resistance to dramatic excess feels wryly Midwestern. Slouching into her notes, with the barest tremor of vibrato, she can almost suggest a precocious child peering past the bounds of innocence. On a track called "Grown Man" she even teasingly plays that card over the album's peppiest arrangement, built around vintage synthesizer loops.

As on her 2008 debut, "With Blasphemy So Heartfelt," Mayfield has entrusted her production to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. He surrounds her singing with echoing guitars and bone-dry percussion, in the spirit of a spaghetti-western soundtrack. "Somewhere in Your Heart" takes the shape of a heat-warped desert crawl; "Sometimes at Night" suggests a desolate country waltz. There are exceptions to this mood and atmosphere, including "Grown Man" and "Blue Skies Again." But Mayfield's better efforts involve uneasy reflection, as on "Sleepless," in which she brushes off the well-founded concerns of her friends, or "Run Myself Into the Ground," the chorus of which could just as easily be about addiction or depression as an ill-advised romantic partner. Whatever the case, she plays it entirely straight, and makes you worry all the more.