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From the playful stylings of The Shins to the still kickin' Old 97s to a frequently introspective Colin Hay, here are reviews for the new albums by these three venerable acts:
The Shins, "Heartworms" (Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records)
James Mercer takes the helm on "Heartworms," producing The Shins' fifth album and shaping the band's style and identity as much as ever. Mercer creates a diverse set of tunes which remain playful even when he explores relationships where nothing appears to be simple or straightforward.
A folky guitar and snappy percussion drive "Mildenhall," a true-to-life glimpse into Mercer's military brat adolescence and "Painting a Hole" is the first of several tunes that seem musically inspired by those years Mercer spent in Britain in the 1980s.
"Cherry Hearts" has an angular, New Wave approach similar to Howard Jones, while "Rubber Ballz" namechecks Paul Simon and may have settled on a harsh solution to every boy's fantasy-gone-wrong, "And I just can't get her out of my bed/Wish I'd gone with her sister instead."
The title tune has more of the typically Mercer-ish confessions, wordy and rather resigned, with sounds which hark back to the band's early albums, what has been described as a "return to the handmade."
Album closer "The Fear" reverberates in that Radiohead-performing-Irish-Mariachi-music kind of way, small waves whose soothing repetition is upset by lines like, "This fear is a terrible drug/If only I had sense enough/To let it give away to love."
Natalie Portman's famous line in Zach Braff's "Garden State" notwithstanding, The Shins may not change your life but with albums like "Heartworms" they can definitely ease the tedium.
Old 97s, "Graveyard Whistling" (ATO Records)
The Old 97s were one of a handful of touring country-rock bar bands that emerged during the 1990s, writing clever songs that owed more to their rock 'n' roll heroes than anything rooted in Nashville. They are and always have been just twangy enough to have their albums filed in the country bins.
Many of the best bands from that period the Hangdogs, Uncle Tupelo have fallen by the wayside. The Old 97s are still rocking 20 years later.
In fact, if there's a theme to their new album, "Graveyard Whistling," it's that this band isn't dead yet. If you don't get the hint in the very first song, "I Don't Wanna Die in This Town," you're not listening.
Despite the occasional macabre undercurrent, this is not a somber album. Singer Rhett Miller leads the band through smart songs with echoes of Depeche Mode, the Clash and other rockers. It's what this band is good at, and it probably sounds better live.
That's especially true on a song called "Bad Luck Charm," a barroom rocker that would hold its own wrapping up any late-night roadhouse set.
So no, this album doesn't break much new ground. But Miller, whose singing has always been the best things about the band, still brings conviction to his work.
That's enough to keep the Old 97s whistling, rockin' or whatever they've been doing all this time but yeah, taking it right past the graveyard.
Colin Hay, "Fierce Mercy" (Compass Records)
Colin Hay's pop skills get a Nashville customization on "Fierce Mercy," a frequently introspective album that ranks among the best by the former Men at Work front man.
Hay's songwriting elegance has no need for bells and whistles, but a graceful string section and classic arrangements blending folk, country rock and pop provide an attractive foundation for as strong a set of songs as he's recorded in a 13-album solo career.
Hay's vocals are one of the most easily recognizable in rock and he has the ability to adapt it to a wide array of settings and styles without losing any of its character and emotion.
Whether eulogizing his departed mother on "She Was the Love of Mine," relating the return home of a war veteran on "Frozen Fields of Snow" or recounting an opportunity for nostalgia caused by a seemingly fickle May-September romance on "I'm Going to Get You Stoned," Hay's scenarios are never forced or artificial.
"Two Friends," written by frequent collaborator Michael Georgiades, is about a couple of his pals who died in the same week. The Nashville sessions several tunes were also recorded in California provide a strong opening with "Come Tumbling Down."
As for musical touchstones, there are echoes of late '80s R.E.M. in "I'm Inside Outside In," an Elton John piano solo would fit snugly on "The Best in Me" and Roy Orbison could have contributed "Secret Love" to a Traveling Wilburys album. A distinguished bunch, as are Colin Hay's songs.
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