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Tool "10,000 Days" Sony/Volcano
For fans of: A Perfect Circle, Deftones, Dream Theater
Just when it seemed inconceivable that Tool could tap into another realm of stimulating sophistication, the group returns from five years in some obscure nebula with "10,000 Days." The questions now are how band members got there and how and why they returned. What's even more amazing is how they translated it into a sonically stellar recording.
Like an impassioned machine, Tool has remained uncompromising and sincere in their vision with the ability to be as delicate as they are devastating. Odd time signatures that somehow always feel natural, coupled with mystical and mesmerizing musicianship, creates a powerfully dark presence that breathes light. The group's most experimental effort to date, "10,000 Days" is an epic that packs the usual heavy wallops ("Vicarious," "Jambi") in addition to lengthy yet rewarding soundscapes ("Lost Keys," "Viginti Tres"). It is poetic, smart and progressive yet palatable. Listen to this record with the same attention you would give an involved motion picture. If you are still doubtful, recall the caliber of the few artists who have been able to get away with a seven-minute radio hit.
Further, if there has been any recent incentive for music piraters to actually suck it up and purchase an actual hard copy of a record, Tool's remarkable album packaging is necessary company for the otherworldly experience of the music itself.
- Jon Allegretto
AFI "Decemberunderground" Interscope Records
For fans of: Good Charlotte, Evanescence, Linkin Park
Like that of a guitar-thrashing Frankenstein, AFI's sound on "Decemberunderground" is dismembered rock styles stitched together - a femur of old-fashioned metal, an elbow of punk-pop melody, a rib cage ripped from some heartbroken "screamo" cadaver.
This chop shop approach - along with melodramatic goth-like lyrics about death, murder, loneliness and suicide, lots of suicide - could have been designed in a major label laboratory or boardroom.
Somehow, the parts fit together seamlessly. Credit producer Jerry Finn with creating a hybrid that kicks and caresses in all the right places. Guitars sizzle and cut, drums thud and crack pleasantly. And Davey Havok's voice - remarkable in how it turns from mild to maniacal on a dime - rides above it all, telling dark, dreamy tales.
In the end, though, AFI's rock 'n' roll monster isn't all that scary. Despite its oh-so-current patchwork of sounds and morbid moods, the end result feels remarkably light, a contemporary, black lipstick version of Men at Work or Loverboy. Hey, maybe that was the diabolical plan all along.
- Sam McDonald
Keane "Under the Iron Sea" Interscope Records
For fans of: U2, Radiohead, Coldplay
It would be easy, but ultimately inaccurate, to characterize Keane's sound on its sophomore album, "Under the Iron Sea," as a hybrid of a less esoteric Radiohead or U2 minus the occasionally heavy-handed social messages. While the opening of "Atlantic" sounds like an outtake from Radiohead's "Kid A" and "Is It Any Wonder?" would be right at home on U2's "Achtung Baby," the similarity isn't just a case of shameless pilfering from great bands.
While Keane maintains the piano-driven sound that was a hallmark of their debut, "Hopes and Fears," this time out it is richer and more melodic, especially on "Nothing In My Way" and "A Bad Dream." "Nothing In My Way" is a standout track, a nearly perfect match of melody and lyrics that showcases Keane at its best.
While the influences of Radiohead and U2 might seem a little out of place to fans of "Hopes and Fears," Keane has released an album that is stronger and holds up better under repeated listenings than its predecessor.
- Mandy Malone
Ben Harper "Both Sides of the Gun" Virgin Records
For fans of: Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band
Ben Harper's seventh offering, "Both Sides of the Gun," is a double-barreled album full of Harper's distinctive folk funk. The two-disc release has two very different sounds.
Disc one is softer and more introspective. It features love songs and tales of doubt, fear and self-examination. Disc two is loud and raucous and tells of the public side of Harper.
Political and angry at times, this second disc draws on strong emotions. Sometimes finger-pointing and sometimes just making observations on our times, Harper shows no reluctance to say what is on his mind.
On disc two's opening cut, "Better Way," Harper asks, "What good is a man, who won't take a stand, what good is a cynic, with no better plan?" This song showcases some of Harper's slide licks as well as David Lindley on tambura.
"Engraved Invitation" reminds me of the Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash" right down to the Keith Richards-like guitar riff. Other great tunes include "Gather 'Round The Stone," a song about young people dying in our present war with the "stone" apparently being a gravestone and the funky "Black Rain," which addresses societal problems including youth revolution and New Orleans after Katrina. - Vaughn Deel
Scott Walker "The Drift" 4ad
For fans of: Gyorgi Ligeti, Diamanda Galas, Nine Inch Nails
This harrowing but ultimately compelling listen is definitely not for everyone. The Scott Walker who scored massive pop hits back in the '60s with The Walker Brothers ("The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore") is gone but "The Drift" is better for it. This is only his third full release since 1984 but the waiting has paid dividends.
At 63, his voice is still in top form but the music it serves is completely different. Gone are the beautiful orchestral arrangements; in their place are atonal, Xenakis-like bursts, odd touches like a percussionist punching a side of pork and dropping a cinder block on a huge wooden box, and disjointed almost-rock moments. All these noises are used to reflect the spare, poetic lyrics. Walker truly inhabits his own dense and nightmarish sound world.
"Cossacks Are" comes galloping out of the gate, one of the moments where Walker most approaches a rock song. "Clara" is a highlight, a 12-minute reflection on Mussolini's tragic young mistress that also encompasses the madness of Fascism. "Cue" is an intense mediation on the plagues of the modern world.
Sure, the work is pared down, abstract and horrifying but worth the effort.
- Jeff Eldred
T-bone Burnett "The True False Identity" Sony BMG Music
For fans of: Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Nick Cave, Ry Cooder, Neil Young
You may not have a T-Bone Burnett album in your collection, but chances are you've probably heard Burnett's handiwork. "The True False Identity" is Burnett's first solo album in 14 years, but he's been a busy beaver in the interim. His credits include production work for artists like Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, but you've probably heard his name for the work he did on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Cold Mountain" soundtracks.
T-Bone is an incredible musician and it's a pleasure to hear him behind the mike instead of just twiddling the knobs for everybody else. "The True False Identity" is full of rich, layered songs that are infused with jazz, blues, rock, folk and everything in between. There are reflective, soul-searching songs ("Shaken Rattled and Rolled," "Fear Country") and foot-stomping bluesy rockers ("Palestine Texas," "Blinded By The Darkness.") Really, T-Bone Burnett is like Tom Waits Lite.
Burnett delivers the grit with his clean vocals to give it a different equilibrium than you would find in the seemingly darker works of Waits and Nick Cave. As a bonus for hard-core fans, iTunes offers four bonus tracks free when you buy the whole album for download. The bonus tracks include live songs as well as the standout "A Lonely Man," the theme song featured in Wim Wender's new Western movie "Don't Come Knocking," whose soundtrack was written and produced by Burnett.
- Maria Harper Thomas
Bruce Springsteen "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" Sony
For fans of: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bill Monroe
Bruce Springsteen has earned the right to take whatever musical flights of fancy he chooses. This one's a hoot (as in hootenanny).
"The Seeger Sessions" is a glorious set of songs - some written by the folk legend, others just recorded by him - brought to full-blooded life by a crackerjack group of musicians Springsteen assembled for a three-day jam session at his Jersey home. The recordings, captured live and without overdubs, are loose and organic but still have a certain polish to them. Backed by fiddle, banjo, accordion and a razor-sharp horn section led by trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg, Springsteen spins songs like "Jacob's Ladder" and "Pay Me My Money Down" into joyful romps.
The gravitas of "Mrs. McGrath" and the gentle spirituality of "We Shall Overcome" coexist with surprising ease alongside bluegrass chestnuts such as "John Henry" and "Jesse James" or the giddy "Old Dan Tucker." This is Springsteen as you've never heard him before; 33 years after he greeted us from Asbury Park, N.J., he can still catch us by surprise.
Note: This is a dual disc. Flip the CD over and it's a half-hour DVD chronicling the recording of the disc and featuring live performances of several songs and a couple of tunes that didn't make the final cut.
- Mike Holtzclaw
Paul Simon "Surprise" Warner Brothers
For fans of: Brian Eno, David Byrne, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry
You won't be startled so much as you will be genuinely pleased by Paul Simon's new album "Surprise."
While the music is not immediately as ear-catching as "Graceland" or "Rhythm of the Saints," the tunes are pleasant nonetheless and could grow on you after repeated listenings.
I expected that Brian Eno's "sonic landscapes" (as described in the credits) would be more pronounced. After all, this is a man who made a name for himself in the '70s and '80s not only for his own ambient compositions, but also for collaborations with Roxy Music, David Bowie and David Byrne.
On "Surprise," his style - and that of fellow contributor Herbie Hancock - seem less pronounced, but no less supportive of Simon's mellifluous voice and songs.
Naturally, Simon can still write meaningful, heartfelt tunes, such as "Everything is a Love Song," "Beautiful," and one of my three favorites, "Father and Daughter." To my mind, the latter is a perfect bookend to last year's "Bertie" by Kate Bush. Both are touching without being saccharine.
"Wartime Prayers," "Another Galaxy" and "That's Me" also highlight Simon's ability to write about diverse subjects. The first, for example, makes no criticism of the war in Iraq, but does sing about how much war can affect people. The second is about a woman who ditched her groom the morning of the wedding for a possibility of a better life elsewhere. The third could be interpreted as a song about himself.
- Stephen H. Cowles
Red Hot Chili Peppers "Stadium Arcadium" Earner Bros.
For fans of: Mike Watts, Primus, Beastie Boys
Labeling the Red Hot Chili Peppers as just a funk band is to do a disservice to both the band and the listener. "Stadium Arcadium" is the band's first double album, and as such it allows the Peppers to take many different musical paths. The funk is still there, of course, propelled by Flea's frenetic bass work, but guitarist John Frusciante is the real star of the show. Frusciante brings his trademark spacey sound to the mix, as well as backing vocals that seem almost angelic when supporting Anthony Kiedis' melodies. "Dani California," which leads off the first CD, is the album's catchiest tune by far, although the epic "Snow (Hey Oh)" and the title tune also have a way of finding their way into your brain. The one problem with the album is that it is a little too long - if "Stadium Arcadium" had been a single disc culled from the best of what's here, you might have one of the Peppers' best albums.
- Bryan DeVasher
Gnarls Barkley "St. Elsewhere" Downtown
For fans of: Gorillaz, OutKast, Cibo Matto
Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse - possibly the perfect creative marriage.
The best thing about this collaboration is that it's difficult to fit it into a genre. Elements of hip-hop, rock, soul, techno, jazz and '60s pop either sneak into pieces of songs or take over entire tracks.
"Crazy," the popular single that showed up on ringtones and MySpace profiles, blends strings with Cee-Lo's powerful and beautifully raspy vocals. The smooth, energetic horns on "Go-Go Gadget Gospel" almost sound like one of the marching bands from a trippy version of the movie "Drumline." Other favorites include "The Boogie Monster" that has Cee-Lo afraid of himself; the necessity in morphing into different versions of yourself on "Transformer" and the fun, 2½-minute oxymoron of "Who Cares?"
This soundtrack to anyone's life - complete with conflicted relationship, chase scene, self-discovery and love - is made more perfect by Gnarls' ability to play a song for what it's worth. The 14-track effort is less than 40 minutes long. Always leave 'em wanting more.
-Lisa B. Deaderick