(On Your Own/MRI/Red)
* * 1/2
People take drugs for two reasons: because they desire something utterly predictable, or just the opposite. Bands like the Verve, a mainstay of England's psychedelically inclined 1990s rock scene, romanticized the first outcome in songs culled from free-form jam sessions and lyrics, by pretty preacher Richard Ashcroft, about shouting down inner demons in a struggle to perfect the soul.
But the Verve's most successful songs came closer to the second kind of chemical experience. Expansive but solid at the core, the band's commercially friendly rock produced the desired effect: Ashcroft's comforting platitudes reduced emotional inflammation, while Nick McCabe's forceful guitar effect (supported by a no-nonsense rhythm section) cleared the head like an antihistamine.
This comeback album (after eight years apart, the group reunited in 2007, triumphantly claiming the Coachella main stage this spring), is as solid as a dose of Extra Strength Tylenol. Balancing McCabe's love of athletic jamming with Ashcroft's bardic aspirations, "Forth" is centered on slowly building jams that pay off in transcendent choruses; a few shorter, more popwise songs, like the single "Love Is Noise," follow the precedent of the band's one huge international hit, the sample-happy "Bittersweet Symphony."
Like many an English lad before him, Ashcroft puts the sneer into soul; his fine-sandpaper voice tempers the music's heavenward thrust. It's satisfying, this blend of the angelic and the blokeish, but on "Forth" it never feels very urgent or original. If an anthem deficiency is what ails you, this album is a perfectly useful over-the-counter treatment. Just don't expect the trip to take you anywhere new.
-- Ann Powers
Okereke zings when he sings
* * * 1/2
Of all the important things that the London post-punk outfit Bloc Party tried to do on its sophomore album, "A Weekend in the City" -- confronting urban malaise, burgeoning sexual identity and the second-generation British immigrant experience, among them -- the one thing singer Kele Okereke forgot was to be funny.
Sure, Bloc Party won the 2005 dance-rock sweepstakes on its soaring choruses and Okereke's earnest love pangs. But its third album, "Intimacy," released digitally Thursday, introduces a new instrument: the well-timed zinger. Take the glitched-up, nearly guitar-less lead single, "Mercury," which snidely promises that "In any part of the world, from Silver Lake to Williamsburg, you can pick another stranger and fall in love." Rarely has a band's own audience been so cleanly gutted in a song.
This vicious playfulness extends to the music as well, which trims off the magisterial excesses of "Weekend" while keeping the band's recent noisy electronica crush intact. "Zephyrus" is essentially a groaning dubstep tune, and "Trojan Horse" shreds a typical single-string guitar melody in a bank of overdriven filters.
Fans awaiting another floor-filler like "Banquet" won't find it here, as the album is melodic without being hugely tuneful. But the pleasures of "Intimacy" befit a band that tried to save the world and found it less grateful than Bloc Party had hoped. "I can be as cruel as you, fighting fire with firewood," Okereke deadpans. Maybe he's better with a dagger than he is with a bandage.
-- August Brown
Even in overtime, a spirited Game
* * *
It's difficult for those weaned on the holy gangsta trinity of “Straight Outta Compton,” "The Chronic" and "Doggystyle" not to appreciate the Game’s perpetual nostalgia for the glory days of G-Funk. With an aesthetic tailor-made for endless drives down palm-tree-lined avenues, Jayceon Taylor's hard-hitting beats make for ideal, sun-soaked California ride music.
The Game's insatiable drive for greatness has led him to recruit the best rappers and producers around, desperate to prove that he belongs. He succeeded with his first two efforts, "The Documentary" and "The Doctor's Advocate," albums that cemented his place as the lone commercially viable light repping the City of Angels during this particularly fallow decade for West Coast gangsta rap.
Blessed with perhaps the finest ear for beats among his peers and a husky, powerful rasp of a voice, the Game doesn't lack in faults. Ever-obsessive in name-dropping other rappers, this tic doesn't disappear on "L.A.X.," with the Game's almost "Single White Female" obsession with Dr. Dre manifesting itself repeatedly.
The Compton-raised rapper's conservative inclination to stick to the gangsta tropes of money, drugs and guns feels limiting at times, as does the album's bloated 1-hour-and-16-minute running time. While "L.A.X." boasts several tracks too many, few remain outright duds, with the album heavily boosted by the Game's all-star squad of guest performers.
On "State of Emergency," Ice Cube's ever-aggrieved assault meshes well with the Game's ode to Los Angeles' violent underbelly, while on the single "My Life," Lil Wayne’s woozy, weary hook adds a sense of poignant urgency to the Game's tale of uplift. A Nas guest spot buoys the heartfelt, compelling civil rights anthem "Letter to the King." Elsewhere, Common, Raekwon, Ne-Yo and Ludacris turn in strong performances.
"L.A.X." might not hit the heights of its two predecessors, but it is one of the more complete and satisfying major-label rap releases of the year.
-- Jeff Weiss
Albums are reviewed on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.