They Are Singers!! They Are Songwriters!!
They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!

It’s just a fact of my personality that I’m constantly finding myself excited for new albums without hearing a note of them. If an artist I love has something new for me, I don’t even need to read more than the album title to start anticipating it, clearing room on my shelf for it, imagining what it will sound like and how it will rewrite my life.

Often, though, there’s nothing like actually hearing a song or two to dampen than excitement. And it’s happened to me twice in one week now.

First up was Keane. You all know how much I like Keane – their first two albums both made my top 10 list (top two, actually). They have a reputation for being soggy milksops, but I think they write amazing pop songs, and they never treat their guitarless-trio format as a novelty. Keane’s third album, Perfect Symmetry, comes out in October, and you can download the first single, “Spiralling,” now at their site.

Within 48 hours last week, I went from not even knowing that Keane’s third album might be on the horizon, to salivating over the title and the spine-tingling countdown posted to their website, to counting the seconds as the single downloaded, and then to taking my first listen of what I hoped would be one of the best albums of 2008. And then I listened again. And again.

I’ve heard “Spiralling” about 12 times now, and I still don’t know what to make of it. First, let me say that the Keane boys have the reputation they have because they’re usually serious to a fault. They play a stately form of piano-pop with nakedly emotional (sometimes cliched) lyrics, and not a hint of self-deprecation. The dance mixes I’ve heard of their songs are so bizarre because the loose-limbed attitude of club music is a thousand miles removed from the stand-straight-and-sing style they’ve perfected.

So imagine my shock when I heard the start of “Spiralling” for the first time. It begins with a jubilant “Woo!” and a synth line right out of the Thompson Twins. The whole thing is a throwback to ‘80s dance-pop – this is a song Hugh Grant’s character in Music and Lyrics would sing. It’s very Wham, honestly. I have no idea if they’re serious – the rhetorical questions in the middle (“Did you want to be a winner? Did you want to be an icon? Did you want to be famous?”) make it hard to tell. They sound tongue-in-cheek, but the whole production is such a loving homage to 1983 synth-crap, and they play it so straight…

Apparently, the whole album carries an ‘80s vibe – one advance review compared it to Prince, which would be such a stylistic reinvention for this band that it beggars belief. I think I quite like “Spiralling,” for what it is – a catchy slice of retro-kitsch with a great chorus – but as a new direction for one of my favorite new bands of the decade? I’m not so sure. I am still curious to hear Perfect Symmetry, but I’d be lying if I said I was still breathlessly awaiting it.

And then came Ben Folds, another piano-pop favorite of mine. Ben’s new album is called Way to Normal, and it’s out September 30. He’s gone out of his way in interviews and press releases to quell any expectation of a bitter divorce album – Way to Normal is, apparently, a rock record through and through, snarky and fun. That’s okay with me, but I liked the more serious direction Folds had taken on the highly underrated Songs for Silverman, an album that I thought came closest so far to that great record Folds still has inside him somewhere.

There are two songs from Way to Normal up on Folds’ MySpace page: leadoff track “Hiroshima” and “Bitch Went Nuts.” They are, not to put to fine a point on it, awful. “Hiroshima” is an homage to Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” and tells a story about Folds falling on stage and hitting his head. “Bitch” is not an all-encompassing relationship smackdown, like “Song for the Dumped,” but is, instead, a long joke about dating a left-wing conspiracy nut. Both are lazy, neither one has any melody to speak of, and rather than being fun, which I think is what Folds is aiming for, both are terribly boring.

Often, during his concerts, Folds will make up songs on the spot. These will be funny, vulgar little ditties about things that happened to him that day, or stories he’s heard, or the audience in the theater that night. They’re funny, for what they are. The two tracks I’ve heard from Way to Normal remind me of those extemporaneous nuggets that have been, somehow, treated as real songs in the studio. It’s disappointing. I hear that “You Don’t Know Me,” the actual first single, is much better, and I still have hope that this album isn’t a throwaway clunker. But I’m not impressed so far.

* * * * *

Okay, enough griping. If you want an example of an album that lived up to all expectations, you have to hear Harps and Angels, the new one from Randy Newman.

It’s hard to explain Randy Newman to those unfamiliar with his work. Many people, if they know him at all, only know his songs for children’s movies. (Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” for example.) What they don’t know is this creaky-voiced little man is one of the bleakest, funniest, most black-hearted songwriters around. Honestly. Just listen to “Rednecks” and “Political Science,” and get back to me. Newman has made the transition from angry young man to bitter old man look easy – he’s been bitter for decades.

It’s been nine years since Bad Love, Newman’s last album. That one was quintessential Newman – political and harsh (“The Great Nations of Europe,” “The World Isn’t Fair”), self-aware (“I’m Dead But I Don’t Know It”), and often pretty (“Going Home”). The same template applies to Harps and Angels, but this one skips the stylistic deviations – it’s all piano and orchestra, slipping from New Orleans shuffles to lovely ballads to old-time movie musical numbers. It’s consistent, rather than boring, and Newman’s sing-speak ramblings keep things moving along.

And, oh, the lyrics. These are classic Newman verses, taking aim at some standby targets and some fresh new ones. The standout here is “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which turns out to be anything but. Newman reaches back through history to find leaders that make George W. Bush look good in comparison – Hitler, Stalin, Caesar. “The leaders we have, while they’re the worst that we’ve had, are hardly the worst this poor world has seen,” the apologist narrator sings, and then takes comfort in the Spanish Inquisition: “I don’t even like to think about it. Well, sometimes I like to think about it.”

“Piece of the Pie” is even more merciless. Over a galloping, dissonant orchestral backdrop, Newman paints a picture of a crumbling America, and then takes a stunning lyrical turn, putting himself at the top of the heap: “The rich are getting richer, I should know, while we’re going up, you’re going down and no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne…” This song contains my favorite verse of the bunch, which I will present in full:

“There’s a famous saying someone famous said
As General Motors goes so go we all
Johnny Cougar’s singing it’s their country now
He’ll be singing for Toyota by the fall…”

It’s not all bitching and moaning, of course – “Piece of the Pie” is followed up by “Easy Street,” an appealing amble with some nice saxophones. The title track is a funny recounting of a near-death experience, delivered as if you’re sitting next to Newman in the bar. “Laugh and Be Happy” is a joyous pro-immigration song. And “Potholes” is a delight, all about how forgetting makes it easier to forgive. “God bless the potholes down on Memory Lane,” Newman sings, before asking for “real big ones” to open up and “take some of the memories that do remain.”

The most politically incorrect thing here is “Korean Parents,” in which our narrator sets up a shop selling… well, Korean parents, playing off the notion that Korean children are smarter by saying they just get more discipline at home. The song, however, is a smack to the current generation – Newman believes that anyone can succeed if they’re given the right motivation, and by acknowledging the racial stereotype, he bursts through it. “Sick of hearing about the greatest generation,” he spits at the end. “That generation could be you, so let’s see what you can do…”

Newman saves one of the biggest laughs for himself – the end of “Only a Girl” is priceless. The song is about an old man talking to a friend about his new flame, a young, pretty girl, and wondering out loud why someone like her would be with someone like him. Here’s how it ends: “Maybe it’s the money. Jeez, I never thought of that. What a horrible thought. God damn it.”

But maybe Newman is mellowing with age, as Harps and Angels concludes with its prettiest song, “Feels Like Home.” It’s a straight-up love song, with no irony and no bitterness, and Newman even tackles a sweet melody with his creaky voice, and pulls it off. It’s a gentle finish to a terrifically dark and funny album, a latter-day Randy Newman classic. Harps and Angels is worth the nine-year wait, and while I’d like another one sooner rather than later, these 10 songs show why every Randy Newman album is an event.

* * * * *

Maybe I’m dumb, but I honestly didn’t expect Amy Ray’s solo career to keep on trucking the way it has. Ray is best known as one-half of the Indigo Girls, and if ever there were two people born to sing together, it’s her and Emily Saliers. Together, the pair took their musical collaboration in the ‘90s from acoustic folk to full-blown Crazy Horse-style rock, building and building album after album – they sounded like they were headed somewhere, a perfect synthesis of Ray’s love of rock and roll and Saliers’ gift for surprising pop melodies.

So when Ray issued her solo debut, Stag, in 2001, I thought this was just something she had to get out of her system. But no – shortly thereafter, the Girls abandoned their louder side, settling down into a pleasant, mainly acoustic pop-folk milieu. And Ray kept rocking out on the side, as if keeping the angrier, more distorted songs for herself.

Now here we are, seven years later. The last Indigo Girls album, Despite Our Differences, was so pleasant that I don’t even remember it. And Amy Ray’s third solo album, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, kicks its ass all over the place. I’m not sure what happened here, but I’m much preferring the work Ray is doing on her own. It’s like the Girls have become comfortable, while Ray is still searching, and the journey is always more interesting than the destination.

Kinder is a little quieter than Ray’s prior efforts. It opens with “Birds of a Feather,” all creeping atmosphere, but soon picks up with the Clash-inspired “Bus Bus.” The songs are simple, but simply effective, and Ray’s band is tight and energized. “Cold Shoulder” pivots on a simple acoustic riff – one of the simplest and most overused riffs in pop music history, honestly – but it works, especially since the lyrics invert the typical boy-meets-girl scene one might find over this riff: “See that girl over there, she’s gonna give me the cold shoulder, she may be straight tonight but last night she let me hold her…”

The loudest thing here is the almost-punk “Blame is a Killer,” a song that just wouldn’t work under the Indigo Girls name. But several of these songs are softer and gentler, and I can picture Ray and Saliers singing them together. Closing song “Rabbit Foot” especially sounds like something that would fit on Swamp Ophelia, with its sparse guitars and “Biko”-like toms. I would never begrudge Amy Ray the chance to make her own music her way, but I often miss the other voice when listening to this.

But that’s just my own prejudice, as a long-time Indigo Girls fan. Didn’t It Feel Kinder is a fine album, and Amy Ray is a fine singer/songwriter in her own right. Ray’s solo career is starting to feel less like a diversion and more like her primary focus, and with records like this one under her belt, I can see why. If you think the Indigos have become a little too soft-focus lately, Didn’t It Feel Kinder will feel like an oasis after a long crawl through the desert.

* * * * *

Before I heard it, I didn’t quite understand why Conor Oberst had a) recorded a solo album, and b) named it after himself. Now that I have, it makes a lot more sense.

For more than 10 years, Oberst has been recording as Bright Eyes, a veritable one-man show based on his songs and voice. Letting Off the Happiness was as much a solo album as Conor Oberst is – more so, in fact, since the number of musicians lending a hand on the new record far outnumbers the “band” lineup on most Bright Eyes records. It’s all Conor, so why switch up and use his real name after so long?

The answer is pretty obvious, really – 10 years ago, Conor Oberst would have been a Bright Eyes album, but in the ensuing decade, Oberst has built up his band effort far beyond its humble acoustic beginnings. Last year’s Cassadaga was the apex of this evolution, a massive sonic production 20 million miles removed from the sparse folk Oberst started with. The lyrics have remained constant, literate and difficult and frequently brilliant, but the sound has exploded.

Conor Oberst, on the other hand, is a throwback, a quick and dirty folk album that brings the focus right back to that guitar and that voice. It’s simple, it’s often a lot of fun, and it’s great. You can hear the difference right off the bat – “Cape Canaveral” is a sparse, slow, gorgeous piece featuring nothing but acoustic and vocals. On subsequent tracks, Oberst assembles a ramshackle band, but rather than the studio creations of recent Bright Eyes albums, these songs sound thrown together in a few drunken weekends.

Let’s be clear – none of these songs sound like they were made up on the spot, but rather written over time and then recorded quickly and simply. The whole album has an appealingly loose feel, especially ditties like “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital),” a riotous freight train of a song that brings back Oberst’s throaty, warbling over-singing, judiciously excised from the past few Bright Eyes records. Here, though, it sounds right, like Oberst unfurling his wings and letting it fly.

The album even includes a couple of minute-long diversions, bits of fun that would have hit the cutting room floor during the Cassadaga sessions. But I don’t want to make it sound like this album is just a rushed-through sideline, because it contains some excellent songs. “Eagle on a Pole,” for example, sits between two sillier numbers, and flourishes, its pretty melody giving way to a brief, glorious guitar solo while Nate Walcott’s electric piano keeps things moving. “Lenders in the Temple” is wonderful, Oberst’s voice and guitar buoyed by subtle organ, and closer “Milk Thistle” is another sparse wonder.

It’s as a whole, though, that this album works. The quieter, more serious pieces rub shoulders with their more joyous cousins, and the complete record plays like a travelogue, full of rest stop stories and road songs. This is a Bright Eyes album, but it isn’t, and as much as I like the recent work Oberst has done under his band name, these 42 minutes under his own sound much more honest and real. Oberst has taken all the songwriting lessons he’s learned in the last 10 years, and made an old-school record, one that feels both off-the-cuff and lived-in. At age 28, Conor Oberst is coming into his own, and living up to his hype.

* * * * *

Before I go, a quick personal thank-you note to Jeffrey K. of Lo-Fidelity Records. This week, Jeffrey pointed me to a dirt-cheap eBay listing for the 77s’ 123 box set, and I jumped on it. It should be winging its way to me in a few days, and though I was prepared to pay about $100 for it, I ended up scoring it for a lot less. So thanks, Jeffrey! And everyone else, go pick up the new 77s album, Holy Ghost Building. It rocks.

Next week, more things I liked in high school.

See you in line Tuesday morning.