Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool

What is it with snarky rockers and G-d complexes, anyway? (Maybe that's why Columbia chickened out Stateside and called it Pure Pop for Now People, like that really explained the album better.) But no matter what it's called, it's a gas: right on the terminal gasp of glam and the cusp of new wave, with just a dash of doo-wop and soul, the style defies categorization while it simultaneously delights. It's well programmed with a lot of zip (dig the wacked-out Motown riff in "Nutted by Reality" and the rollicking chaos of "I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass") and a little slowness ("Tonight"), and, wow, a heavy helping of humour, like a knowing indictment of the recording industry in "Shake and Pop," the ghoulish "Marie Provost" and of course the Führeriffic "Little Hitler." A precious few songs don't fire on all cylinders (the live pub rocker "Heart of the City" feels an afterthought and "36 Inches High" meanders a bit too much), but there sure aren't many. But wait, there's more! the 2008 CD reissue makes a great album even better by not only reverting to the superior European tracklist, but also adding almost double the music with the different American tracks, surprisingly worthy alternate takes, some B-sides (including the hilarious "I Love My Label") and even the Brinsley Schwartz version of "Cruel To Be Kind." Another overwhelming victory for the Poms! American reissuers should be ashamed. (Content: A couple S- and F-bombs, adult themes and drug references.)

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The White Stripes, Elephant

A power trio with two members, this alleged sibling duo continues the inexorable evolution of their lo-fi aesthetic. Unapologetically quirky, the stripped-down feel is as raw as ever yet even tenser and more tantalizing. I dig the super riffs in "Black Math," "The Hardest Button to Button," the satisfyingly heavy "Little Acorns" and the instant classic ersatz bassline of "Seven Nation Army," though the lyrics meander from noodly to creepy ("You've Got Her In Your Pocket") to incomprehensible ("Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine"), and when it gets slower it gets sloppier: "Well It's True That We Love One Another" is bizarre, "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" is aptly named, and "Balls and Biscuit" has some tasty blues but runs on way too long. But Jack White's tight-pant Robert Plant vocals suck you in and the jams makes you groove, and the formula would probably ring much less authentic if it were much more polished. (Content: mild adult themes.)

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Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life

It's a rare double album that doesn't overstay its welcome. It's a rarer double album that sets itself high goals for musicship and message, and actually hits them. There's real sophistication here, real harmonies you can feel, thick layered instrumentation you could get lost in. Songs like "Black Man" point out much we've all given to society, "Saturn" (from the original companion EP and now a well-deserved part of current CD issues) gives us the wisdom of learning from our mistakes and "Love's In Need Of Love Today" reminds us that conquering prejudice isn't a single point in time. (And don't we all, atheists and preachers alike, need to "Have A Talk With God"?) Combined with zippy songs like "Sir Duke" and "I Wish" (and the best title on the album, "All Day Sucker"), and sweet ones like "As" and "Isn't She Lovely," it deftly avoids that other curse of double albums, collapsing under the weight of their sheer pretentiousness. A product of its time yet ineffably timeless, this album is Stevie's finest. Current CD releases include everything from the companion EP, which, unlike many such tack-ons, has songs fully coherent with and just as sublime as those on the main album. (Content: mild adult themes in "I Wish.")

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Taylor Swift, evermore

The companion album to this year's quarantine surprise Folklore, it improves, though not nearly enough, on the unsympathetic pontifications and the tortoise pace that made its precedessor tedious. But, to be sure, there are nevertheless improvements: leadoff "willow" is pop without being overly sweet, and while the production remains flawless, the throwback semi-country style is better developed this time (especially "champagne problems" and "cowboy like me"). I also appreciate her more mature consideration of the human existence (e.g., the nuanced "happiness" and the small-town slice "'tis the damn season") that does a better job lyrically in getting you to see the world through her eyes, though I gently argue some of us do need a little "closure." On the other hand, what didn't improve from its precedessor is the molasses feel like a tape on half speed, leaving you to wonder when the fun bits start, and too much of the track list is just too slow. Overall the album is still overly navel-gazey and there remain many irritating moments where her emotional state fails to translate musically, but while it may be a companion album in name, for my money it manages to eclipse the previous one even though that wasn't much of a bar to exceed. Despite not being enough for a third star, the iterative changes in this one do make it the relatively superior release, and you don't need to buy the prior album to appreciate the finer moments this one has. By the way, please invest in a SHIFT key. Thank you. (Content: some harsh language and adult themes. A separate clean version is available; I reviewed the original.)

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John Farnham, Whispering Jack

This album is a novelty in America (except for occasional runs of "You're The Voice" on knowing 80s stations), which doesn't make sense, because it's an absolute beauty. It's so beloved in Australia as an icon of contemporary pop that my Aussie wife bought it for me a second time forgetting I'd already bought it before. It could be that Farnham's distinctive vocals sounded too much like his time in the Little River Band when they flopped in the States, or it could be that his career had just slid that far since his teen idol days, which to be sure never took off Stateside either. So call it a comeback album if you like, but the sheer exuberance of songs like "Going, Going, Gone," "Love To Shine" or the album's best track "Pressure Down" could make one think he hadn't ever had a care in the world. While the slow moments ("No One Comes Close," "Touch of Paradise") are no lyrical titans, the emotional heft bursts through his every note and you can't help but exult in an album that just feels so wonderful to listen to. Cursed to remain a staple of record stores down under for as long as they exist, I have no doubts I'll get another copy in a few years, and it'll still be that good; in these polarized times we could all stand to take the pressure down as well. The CD reissue adds the extended version of "Pressure Down" which is merely longer rather than better. (Content: no concerns.)

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Alan Parsons, A Valid Path

I have misgivings about even writing this review because I actually attended the tour for this album when they were in Los Angeles (at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, if you must know), and Alan Parsons himself signed the Eye In The Sky CD in my office. Frankly, it's because this album's not that great. Parsons never seemed to get over his time with Pink Floyd and this solo effort feels like his level best to ape the post-Waters sound right down to the Storm Thorgerson cover and David Gilmour on the lead track; it's probably no coincidence that it's the best one, too ("Return To Tunguska"). There's no problem with the production and there's no issue with the technology as those have always been his strength. Instead, the original songs are generally dull and derivative (especially the P.J. Olsson-fronted songs, "More Lost Without You" in particular, but also "You Can Run"), the revolving door of featured artists don't seem to translate into any variety, and the unoriginal songs ("Mammagamma '04" and a retread of the two lead tracks from "Tales of Mystery and Imagination") would be better served as bonus tracks on a reissue than on this separate album. And then there's the stunt casting: as John Cleese! murmurs irritatedly at the end of "Chomolungma" (probably the only other notable song on the album), "How much longer is this going on?" At least it was better in person! (Content: no concerns.)

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