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When Irish eyes are California dreamin’

The Thrills

“So Much for the City” (Virgin)

****

One of the hardest things in pop music is coming up with uplifting songs that are poignant, not just cheerful -- and this Dublin quintet’s ability to do it so consistently makes this one of the most enchanting rock debuts in years.

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Like Ryan Adams, the Thrills weave their influences into the music so freely and proudly that the album invites you to draft a list of them as you listen. The Thrills’ primary touchstones range from the wistful introspection of Neil Young to the heartfelt, country-flavored rock tones of Gram Parsons.

But the band, whose arrangements also recall the sweet charm of the Beach Boys and the jug-band bounce of the Lovin’ Spoonful, mixes the influences so imaginatively that this CD carries its own musical stamp.

Where many albums alternate between optimistic and melancholy moments, few mix those qualities so frequently and hauntingly in the same song.

“Well tell me where it all went wrong,” Conor Deasy sings softly, with just a faint touch of instrumental support at the start of the opening track, “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far).” The music then brightens with a rollicking, percussion- and piano-driven beat along with a seductive sing-along chorus that defies you to feel blue.

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As the album unfolds, the alternating hope and despair move from personal relationships to wider issues of values and lifestyle. The band is even so playful in places that it sneaks a sly banjo into the arrangements and salutes the disarming pop vitality of the Monkees. Yet the Thrills can be stark and sobering, as in “Hollywood Kids,” a look beneath the seductiveness of Southern California glamour in the tradition of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

The album won’t be in stores here until Nov. 4, the same day the band plays the Troubadour, but it has been available for months in England, where much has been made of the numerous California references in the songs. The band spent four months in California before recording the album, and it uses the locale to reflect -- with fresh eyes and hearts -- on the themes of optimism and disillusionment.

By the final number, many illusions have been shed, but not all hope. Against a swirling, church-like organ backdrop, Deasy declares, defiantly, “We’ll dance till the tide creeps in.”

-- Robert Hilburn

Sincerity marks idol of Clay

Clay Aiken

“Measure of a Man” (RCA)

**

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As it turns out, creating an American idol is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do next.

The attractive face, appealing voice and winning personality that earned Aiken runner-up honors in the last “American Idol” contest didn’t offer much clue about what he may have to say musically. Neither does his debut album, filled as it is with offerings from the factories of Desmond Child and other youth-pop song scribes.

Mastermind producer Clive Davis surrounds Aiken with studio pros who create glistening, radio-ready sounds recalling such mid-'80s Britpop acts as Tears for Fears and George Michael.

A reverb-drenched guitar over a loping hip-hop track helps the album-closing “Touch” stand out from the Top 40-targeted pack. Other songs, most expressing romantic longing or pledging eternal love, sound indistinguishable from the ‘N Sync/Backstreet canon. (Fans who didn’t buy Aiken’s “This Is the Night” single will still have to if they want his B-side recording of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which isn’t on the album.)

Aiken dispatches this stuff earnestly, if predictably, a sincerity that transcends the formulaic material occasionally emerging through the idol chatter.

-- Randy Lewis

Stripped to the caustic bone

Randy Newman

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“The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1" (Nonesuch)

*** 1/2

This is the ideal package if you are trying to convince someone that Newman is a brilliant songwriter who, like Paul Simon and a few others, bridges the gap between the classic American Songbook craftsman tradition and the more personalized singer-songwriter style of the modern pop age.

What makes Newman doubly rewarding is that the wryness and commentary of his vocals make it hard to imagine anyone else doing the songs better.

Though he can write straightforward ballads such as “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” Newman’s strength is expressing strong viewpoints (frequently about the dark or vain side of human nature) with unflinching humor -- from the showbiz arrogance of “It’s Lonely at the Top” to the reverse prejudice of “Rednecks.”

Because Newman is backed only by his own piano, the album -- the first step in a three-volume series in which Newman is reinterpreting his material from the last three decades -- sounds at times like the demonstration tapes that publishers pass around to record companies when hoping to get singers to record the material.

For all the brilliance of the material, the sparse nature of the recording makes “Songbook” more of a series for longtime fans. The original recordings, in the main, are the more rewarding way to fully experience Newman’s work because the added instrumentation frequently adds to the commentary and fun of his colorful and unique musical vision.

-- Robert Hilburn

Better hold off on that dustbin

Juan Gabriel

“Inocente de Ti” (BMG US Latin)

***

There were signs that Mexico’s most successful pop star was losing it. Not his voice, but his touch and his judgment. He was ridiculed for his 2000 presidential campaign jingle for the corrupt PRI party, which then lost power after 70 years. Gabriel, whose career spans half that era, also seemed headed for the dustbin of history with a series of weak albums.

But the master of the catchy hook is back with a project that restores some of his stature as a beloved cultural figure, the homeless kid turned millionaire with songs that touched people’s hearts in simple ways. There are no obvious classics in this 10-song set, but there’s plenty to recommend it.

There’s the melodic jukebox appeal of “Gracias Por Todo,” the soulfulness of the prayer-like “Yo te Recuerdo,” the toe-tapping irresistibility of “Idilio” and the soap-opera melodrama of the title cut. The arrangements hopscotch a spectrum of styles, from rhythmic ballad to soft 1940s swing and even a light touch of 1950s mambo.

Above all, there’s Gabriel’s distinctive voice, which has lost none of its power and emotional expressiveness. His songs may be kitschy and a little cornball at times, but he still lifts our spirits with his positive spin on life’s reversals. Now all he needs is another smash.

-- Agustin Gurza

Joe Strummer, unadulterated

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

“Streetcore” (Hellcat)

***

So what do you want in a Joe Strummer exit album that arrives 10 months after his death of a heart attack at age 50? Some neat package that resolves the loose ends and finally clarifies a direction for his current band? Or something that sets a big sloppy plate of unadulterated, full-strength Joe in front of you, with his passion and personality undiminished, his music and words erratic and unfenced?

Now that would be a last meal to savor, and it’s close to what you get with “Streetcore.” This isn’t a record that will expand Strummer’s incomparable legacy as a driving force of the Clash. But with his restless vision pushing this music all over the map, it’s an undeniably alive album, from its throbbing pub-rock/punk-rock to its dank, dark dub to Strummer’s distinctive stews of funk, rock and electronics.

The punk rock icon is reborn as guru and poet, reggae sorcerer and political prophet, storyteller and vagabond troubadour, priest-like MC and global DJ. Walking a world of injustice and misery, he rallies the rebels and encourages the weary to find strength in community, and release in music.

In the touching final track, a Celtic/folk revamping of Fats Domino’s “Before I Grow Too Old” called “Silver and Gold,” Strummer sings about celebrating life: “Gonna go out dancing every night, gonna see all the city lights,” he sings, ending each verse with, “I got to hurry up before I grow too old.”

After the last note fades, Strummer happily proclaims, “OK, that’s a take.”

Indeed it is.

-- Richard Cromelin

30 more by Elvis

Elvis Presley

“Elvis 2nd to None” (RCA)

***

If last year’s “Elvis 30 #1 Hits” collection was a no-brainer response to the phenomenal success of the Beatles’ “1" album, this follow-up demonstrates not only more thought, but also a considerable amount of heart.

Rather than simply stockpiling more of Elvis’ best-known recordings (though it includes many), this 30-song compilation attempts to examine the unique musical spirit that inhabited him. That’s evident in the opening track, “That’s All Right,” the Big Bang of his short career at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label in Memphis.

The selections course through important singles from “Blue Suede Shoes” in the ‘50s to “Don’t Cry Daddy” in the late ‘60s, touching down in between on such powerful performances as “Mean Woman Blues,” “Trouble” and the socially conscious “If I Can Dream.” Several B-list movie songs and a couple of moderately interesting bonus tracks -- DJ Paul Oakenfold’s remix of “Rubberneckin’ ” and the recently unearthed alternate theme song for the movie “Roustabout” -- make “2nd to None” a solid second entry for those whose first Elvis album may have been “30 #1 Hits.” But it still finishes second to the definitive, single-disc look at Presley’s artistry it might have been.

-- R.L.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.


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