Sturgill Simpson defies categorization — and exceeds expectations — with “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” an exploration of life’s journey inspired by the birth of his first child.

Simpson funks up his country twang with a rousing horn section while keeping a rocking and rollicking edge underneath his probing lyrics.

Heck, he even throws in bagpipes, a cello and violin and yet another killer cover — this time of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Simpson, like all great interpreters, makes the Kurt Cobain song sound like his own, and it oddly fits in perfectly with the mood and theme of “A Sailor’s Guide.”

The record’s final tune, “Call to Arms,” is just what it sounds like. Simpson decries what he’s hearing on TV and radio, and with the horns and guitars growling behind him, urgently declares, “The bull****’s got to go!”

Rock, country, Americana. Whatever. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is a thrill. This compact 39 minutes of pure joy has got the kind of energy that just makes you instinctively lean forward just to try and keep up.

— Scott Bauer

The Associated Press

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals CALL IT WHAT IT IS

Ben Harper is back with the best band he’s ever sung with, delivering strong new material with a group that always has known when to play hard and when to hang back.

Coming on the heels of a 2015 tour with the Innocent Criminals, Harper and the band have recorded 11 new songs that stay true to their eclectic past. They’ve done so on Stax Records, which isn’t the same outfit it was in its Memphis heyday, when Otis Redding, Booker T and the M.G.’s and Isaac Hayes were breaking barriers of both genre and quality.

Harper’s new songs don’t attain those stratospheric levels of achievement, but he and the band don’t dishonor the legacy as they range comfortably from political diatribes to love songs to forceful rock and roll.

The title cut, “Call It What It Is,” takes an angry swing at the spate of recent shootings of young black men, and if the message isn’t wildly original — it’s still murder, that’s the point — Harper delivers it with plenty of feeling.

The common thread throughout the album is Harper’s voice, one of the most versatile and sensitive of the last three decades. It always has been what sets his work apart.

He’s in fine form on the opener, “When Sex Was Dirty,” with a hint of Clash-influenced chant-rock, but really shines on “Deeper and Deeper,” the kind of aching, wistful ballad that he always has sung with more passion that just about anyone else around.

It’s Ben Harper at his best — helped along by a band that has always known how to complement his moods.

— Scott Stroud

The Associated Press