CDs: Jack Johnson, Hot Chip, Nada Surf, Sons and Daughters

CDs: Jack Johnson, Hot Chip, Nada Surf, Sons and Daughters
Jack Johnson succeeds in the same way a great yoga instructor does -- getting fans to take a breath and ponder life's big questions. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Jack Johnson "Sleep Through the Static" (Brushfire) **

"THE world has its ways to quiet us down," sings Jack Johnson on this album's philosophical final track, "Losing Keys." Sure, and one of those ways is Jack Johnson.

The eco-activist with the pristine picking style has gained a huge following (he's the first-night headliner at Coachella this year) by doing what a great yoga instructor does -- getting fans to take a breath and ponder life's big questions, expanding their minds without strain. He continues this method on his fifth studio effort (in stores Tuesday), adding a few gentle pop twists.

Johnson has such a well-established sound -- slightly dropped rhythms topped by spacious acoustic guitar strumming and murmured vocals, with a few drum circle-worthy percussion elements -- that he risks sounding derivative when he tries something more polished or upbeat.

But you'd expect a smart guy like this to cop from good sources, and he does -- "Enemy" recalls vintage Harry Nilsson, "If I Had Eyes" aims for that 1970s sweet spot where Southern rock met bubble-gum pop (think Ozark Mountain Daredevils), and "Monsoon" is so John Mayer it hurts.

Johnson and his amiably expert band make these alliances without fuss, always coming back to that loping groove that gets heads bopping around the campfire. Producer J.P. Plunier compresses the choruses on up-tempo songs but lets the strings squeak and the piano and drums gently roll on the more intimate ballads. Johnson still sings like Anthony Kiedis minus quirks or pitch issues, and he has yet to compromise his cool by reaching for a note.

As for the lyrics, they have a certain platitudinous charm. The title song grapples with the war in Iraq; others address parenthood, married life and the death from cancer of Johnson's 19-year-old cousin, Danny Riley, who sang back-up on one cut.

Images of keys and frames and shadows abound, and the emotional pitch never escalates beyond gentle musing. Johnson's just too risk-averse to make music for the ages, but he's perfectly adept at leading relaxation exercises right now. --Ann Powers

Hot Chip "Made in the Dark" (Astralwerks/DFA) ***

FROM the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure to such heirs as the Postal Service and Junior Boys, the marriage of pop vocal personality and electronic backing has been a noble state -- though one that's not been easy to sustain at a high level.

Of the current crop, Hot Chip has been among the most consistent at balancing the demands of circuitry and sentiment. On its third album (in stores Tuesday), the Londoners struggle a bit to escape the cold climate of the digital domain, but the band (which headlines the El Rey Theatre on Monday) does manage to get the molecules agitated.

The opening "Out at the Pictures" has a playful pep that evokes Devo and Dave "Baby" Cortez's 1959 fanny-shaker "The Happy Organ." "Shake a Fist" surges with funky, faintly Prince-ly force, and late in the album the music starts galloping with the propulsion of the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime."

But it's not strong beats, dazzling dynamics and tactile textures that distinguish Hot Chip from its peers. Alexis Taylor's soft-edged, falsetto-flirting voice is the real hook, and it casts a luminous spell most memorably on the midtempo "Ready for the Floor," the stately title song and the liquid, plaintive ballad "We're Looking for a Lot of Love."

None of these challenges their best song, the last album's "And I Was a Boy From School," for emotional revelation, but they all come close enough for comfort. --Richard Cromelin

Quick Spins

Nada Surf "Lucky" (Barsuk) THE New York trio's fifth album (and third for its Seattle-based indie label) solidifies its position as the decade's foremost purveyor of power pop. "Lucky's" chiming, '70s-leaning tunefulness and painterly arrangements impose a sunny disposition on singer Matthew Caws' vaguely melancholy worldview. Wistful has been done before, yes, but "Lucky" is a swell album of swells. --Kevin Bronson

Sons and Daughters "This Gift" (Domino) THEIR wiry, nervy punk-folk muscles up a bit on the Glaswegian quartet's sophomore album, produced by Bernard Butler, the ex-Suede guitarist. The twining vocals of Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson may even remind you of X at times, but with Bethel's seductive urgings out front most of the time, "This Gift" hints at the spunkiest of American female-fronted popsters. --KB