October Surprises
Four More Reasons to Love 2008

So here’s how good I think the new Keane album, Perfect Symmetry, is.

It doesn’t come out until Tuesday the 14th, but earlier this week, the band kindly made the entire thing available on last.fm for free streaming. Unfortunately, the tracks are all interrupted by “bonus commentary” from the band members halfway through. You’d think it would be one-listen-and-done for me, considering how annoying it is to be grooving along to one of the new songs and have to stop to hear Tim Rice-Oxley babble on about how “different” it all is.

But you’d be wrong. I’ve listened to Perfect Symmetry online probably eight times since Monday, and I’m not tired of it yet. Rice-Oxley’s right, it’s a different kind of Keane album – more fun, more kitschy, less dramatic – but I love it. I absolutely love it. I’ll get you a full review next week, but until then, if you’re not put off by British men nattering on in the middle of each tune, I’d recommend listening to it here.

And if you haven’t heard leadoff track “Spiralling” yet, get ready for your jaw to drop. I’m not surprised much by pop music anymore, but Keane have made something unexpected, and unexpectedly great.

Luckily, I did find some time this week (in between airings of Perfect Symmetry) to listen to four new records. They’re all varying shades of very good. I’m telling you this upfront because I’m trying to be more concise in my writing, and while I hope these shorter reviews will get the point across just as well as the longer ones, I’m hedging my bets. These are all very good CDs, and you should buy them all. Go! Your master commands it!

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The best Oasis album in more than 10 years opens with Noel Gallagher’s best single in at least that long. By the end of the snarling “Bag It Up,” if you were ever a fan, you’ll be one again.

I’ll admit that I didn’t go into Dig Out Your Soul, the seventh Oasis album, expecting a whole lot. Quite frankly, the Gallagher Brothers and their semi-anonymous cohorts have been floundering since their fourth, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, in 2000. (Uncharitably, you could say that every album since (What’s the Story) Morning Glory has missed the mark in some way.)

Also, there’s just the fact that Oasis has become a big joke. Their “better than the Beatles” schtick has always been laughable, but lately, Noel and Liam Gallagher have become known more for their public personas than their music. It’s gotten so bad that a video of Noel getting bum-rushed off the stage a month or two ago became the new “Danzig gets decked” YouTube sensation. And believe me, if you’re trying to avoid becoming ridiculous, Glenn Danzig is not someone you want to be compared with.

But a funny thing happened while Oasis was out of the spotlight. The Gallaghers solidified their lineup, made a couple of workmanlike pop records, and learned how to really write songs again. And now, the payoff: Dig Out Your Soul is a psychedelic rock album that justifies the band’s continued existence, and then some. It is a smart, confident record, and if it doesn’t quite measure up melodically to their early work, it makes up for that in energy and style.

I already mentioned “Bag It Up,” which rocks like nobody’s business. The first batch of songs, through single “The Shock of the Lightning,” play up Oasis as ‘60s-inspired rock band, but the rest of Soul delves into the Beatles’ drug years – it is the trippiest material the band has given us. “Falling Down” is like something George Harrison might have written on his sitar, and Liam’s “I’m Outta Time” is a great Lennon-style ballad.

As they have on the last couple of records, the Gallaghers let new members Gem and Andy Bell contribute to the songwriting here. They get one song each, and even amidst Noel’s best selection of tunes in a decade, those songs stand up. Gem’s “To Be Where There’s Life” is another Eastern-flavored meditation, while Bell’s “The Nature of Reality” is a psych-blues shuffle. The record ends with Liam’s meandering, strange “Soldier On,” and at a compact 45 minutes, the whole thing is just ambitious enough.

Is Dig Out Your Soul a renaissance, a return of a mighty band to fighting trim? Not really. Too many of these songs rattle around looking for choruses, and the overall feel is more sedate than it should be. But from Oasis, a band that better critics than me had written off completely, it’s a pleasant surprise. Hopefully it signals an upswing for a band that has clearly learned that you must scale the mountain before you plant the flag.

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Ani Difranco has been around so long now that it’s hard to know what to say about her that hasn’t been said.

That makes reviewing a new record particularly tough. Everything that was true about Difranco last year is still true – she’s still the Little Folksinger That Could, making her own records her own way and touring the hell out of them on her own dime. She’s still fiercely political, still admirably ready to stand up for what she believes. She remains an idiosyncratic, talented songwriter with a supernatural gift for poetry.

And she’s still one of the only artists on the planet that assures you, album after album, that you’re getting the real, unfiltered her. No one tells Ani what to do, and no one ever has. And all of this has certainly been said before, but it’s all worth repeating.

But none of it tells you a thing about Red Letter Year, her 17th studio creation. It’s the fourth installment in her latest direction – short, concise, consistent statements, in contrast to the sprawling records she made in the 1990s. This one clocks in at 47:04, but 6:26 of that is taken up by a horn-driven instrumental jam at the end. The actual songs here are modest – many hover around the three-minute mark. But the sound is wide and vast.

Red Letter Year feels like a culmination of sorts, or at least a penultimate step. It takes in all of Difranco’s musical directions, ending up with a folk-jazz electro-pop goulash with a dollop of funk (“Emancipated Minor”) on the side. It’s miles from the bare acoustic confessions she used to write, but for Ani these days, it just sounds natural. Her band, including longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Allison Miller, is tight and expansive, following her down every strange jazz-chord detour she takes.

Lyrically, Difranco is in a different place. Her last record, 2006’s wonderful Reprieve, lamented the devastation in New Orleans, and Difranco returns to that setting for the title track. She takes a couple of political shots, and on “The Atom” she argues passionately against nuclear anything – bombs, energy, anything. But her heart just isn’t in the biting stuff this time. This album is about joy. It’s her obligatory new motherhood record – her first daughter was born last year – and she smiles through most of it, addressing many of the lyrics directly to her baby girl.

Red Letter Year is, in the end, just another Ani Difranco album – different from all the rest, but full of the same fierce honesty and musical adventurousness she’s always had in ample supply. This one’s a little fuller, a little more fun, a lot more sonically immediate, but it’s still an Ani album – dazzlingly creative, intelligent and absorbing. May she never stop making them, never stop chronicling her life year by year, song by song.

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If we’re talking about maintaining a fiercely independent career for decades, then we have to bring up Todd Rundgren.

Here’s a guy who has always blazed his own trail, even when it’s been detrimental to his career. For nearly 40 years, he has produced (and, for the most part, completely performed) his own records, slipping blithely from Beatle-pop to Hendrix-rock to progressive suites to novelty songs to synth-pop to Motown soul and back. He once made an album using nothing but the sound of his own voice, and he followed that up with a live-in-the-studio massive pop excursion featuring dozens of musicians. And just for fun, he fronted a side band called Utopia that played nothing but space-rock jams… at least, at first.

The Rundgren catalog is immense, diverse, brilliant and odd. And his fourth decade as a recording artist has been no exception. His last album, 2004’s Liars, was an amazing bit of synthetic soul, performed with nothing but keyboards and vocals. Despite its false-face veneer, the album contained some genuine emotion – mostly rage.

Now, four years later, here’s the about-face. It’s called Arena, and it’s a big, dramatic, guitar-heavy stage play of a record. I honestly don’t remember the last time Rundgren whipped out the six-string this much on an album – every song is loaded with searing, blistering, wonderful guitar work. The drums and other instruments are still electronic, but the screaming guitar here makes the whole thing sound live and organic.

As always, Rundgren has delivered a set of monstrous songs here – poppy, bluesy, soulful, melodic towers of song. Opener “Mad” starts with a circular clean guitar figure, but soon finds Rundgren screaming over thick, distorted rawk noise. Throughout Arena, he balances his more melodic tendencies with his newfound love of the loud. “Bardo” is a long, languorous blues with some fantastic soloing, while “Courage” is a groovy acoustic piece. First single “Mountaintop” is a crunching rocker with a great chorus.

But for much of this album, he’s parodying the worst excesses of rock and roll, and all the macho war mongering that often goes along with it. “Mercenary” and “Gun” are back to back here, and they find peacenik Rundgren playing a Blackwater employee and a young gangbanger, respectively. It’s all irony, but Todd plays it straight. You can tell he’s kidding, though, when he gets to “Strike,” a fiery cock-rock anthem on which Todd unveils a shrieking falsetto to scream, “Strike while the iron is hot!” It’s hilarious.

When he’s serious, though, Arena is marvelous. Rundgren’s powerful, dramatic, soulful voice is in top form here, and he’s given himself chance after chance to stretch out. Dig “Panic,” with its Devo-on-speed beats and lightning-fast chorus. But also check out “Afraid” – Rundgren uses that song’s simple framework to its utmost, singing his little heart out.

It’s been too long since Todd Rundgren has graced us with a new record. I never really know what to expect, but Todd rarely disappoints. Arena is another in a long line of records no other artist would ever make, so thank God Rundgren is still making them. I’m sure in four years or so, he’ll come out with another one, and it will be nothing like this one, but it will be just as good.

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Matt Hales performs and records under the name Aqualung. There’s no point getting upset about it or trying to change it at this point. He’s just going to keep on calling himself Aqualung, and we’re going to have to deal with it.

The name, and its Jethro Tull associations, wouldn’t bother me so much if Hales weren’t an extraordinary pop songwriter. I can’t prove that calling himself Aqualung has hurt his chances over on this side of the pond, but I bet it hasn’t helped draw in the audience that would appreciate – nay, love – Hales’ brand of emotional, grand piano-pop.

The last Aqualung album, last year’s Memory Man, is an absolute masterpiece. It hit #3 on my top 10 list last year, for good reason – every second of it is gorgeous. It’s what I call a Very Big Small – the sound is intense, vast, like clouds rushing along an endless skyline, but the songs are, at heart, tiny things with fragile beating hearts. Memory Man sported at least five of the year’s most beautiful moments, and several of its most beautiful songs.

Words and Music, the follow-up, isn’t Memory Man’s equal. But then, it isn’t supposed to be. Where that album was a consistent suite, this is a collection of songs – some new, some old, and one cover. Where the last record was a dynamic production with electronic beats and strings and synths, this one is more simple and organic. It’s like a breather before jumping into another massive project, and as such, it works.

I don’t want to give the impression that Words and Music sounds thrown together, because it doesn’t. About half of these songs are re-recorded oldies, some from his first two albums, which were only released in the U.K. He covers “Slip Sliding Away,” Paul Simon’s classic tune, and makes it his own. And the rest of the tunes are new. But this is remarkably consistent from first note to last. Hales plays piano on every song, and his voice is as naked and unadorned as it has ever been – just listen to the gorgeous “Good Goodnight,” as lovely a ballad as Hales has ever written.

The whole record is warm and inviting, even when it turns Supertramp on “Mr. Universe.” For all of Memory Man’s expanse, the qualities I loved most about it are all here – lovely melodies, sung and played beautifully. Just listen to “Everything Changed,” one of the older songs, and be swept away by the intertwining vocals. Or revel in the British pop grandeur of “When I Finally Get My Own Place,” which starts off achingly normal and becomes achingly wonderful.

Hales saves his best – or at least his most moving – for last. “Arrivals” begins with a string overture, but soars from there on nothing but piano and voice. “Send me, send me over the ocean to find you,” Hales sings, and my heart hurts. It’s a gloriously sad conclusion to this sweet little album, and by the time it ends, I’m certain: if Words and Music is a stopgap, then it beats out many artists’ real records. Matt Hales is so very good at this sort of thing – too good to call himself Aqualung – and this album, which looks backwards and forwards while celebrating the now, is simply superb.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, Keane, and maybe Copeland too.

See you in line Tuesday morning.