Major news releases of 2008

By Mark Guarino

Don’t look up: spring is here, no matter what the dark skies tell us. To celebrate, here is a run-down of the essential new releases in stores this month.

R.E.M., “Accelerate” (Warner Bros.)

What kind of band falls apart when the drummer leaves? That was the case in 1997 when R.E.M. drummer Billy Berry exited the band after a near-death brain aneurysm, setting the alchemy of his former band on slow fizz over three very inconsequential albums. Then there’s “Accelerate” in which R.E.M. — the trio — rediscovers the mojo. The album is the only worthwhile music the band has released since 1994’s “Monster.” Despite the sleepy transitional albums best thought of as Michael Stipe art projects accompanied by bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck in side player roles, “Accelerate” is the sound of the all three survivors fully engaged.

Buck reconnects with turbocharged riffs that power this album, keeping its lean 35-minutes extra crisp. The same is true with Mills whose bass leads and high harmonies are essential to the band’s classic sound. Nothing on “Accelerate” will make it an automatic successor to the band’s golden era, but it does make up for a lot of wandering years. The brash production style of producer Jacknife Lee (U2, Snow Patrol) makes the music feel groggy, a rush. Added to the effect is Stipe’s lyrical paranoia, sung unhindered and in gonzo glory.

The revival effort spans all the band’s chapters — gothic folk (“Sing for the Submarine”) to electro-rock rave-ups (“Supernatural Superserious”). At time the results sound a bit routine, but should be cheered for the attempt to reclaim a vaulted past. Despite some generic rock (particularly “Hollow Man”), “Accelerate” pays off at the end when the band turns gloriously weird: “Horse to Water,” with its industrial rock breaks and nonsense noise, and “I’m Gonna DJ,” an apocalyptic rant. Both are as punk as the band has gotten in years and they still wear it well.

The Raconteurs, “Consolers of the Lonely” (Third Man/Warner Bros.)

Since the White Stripes went AWOL last year due to Meg White’s unspecified health concerns, Jack White returned to his secondary band, a classic rock schooled grouping with fellow Motor City garage rockers The Greenhornes including pop singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. The band’s second album — recorded, mixed and rushed to stores in just four weeks — betters not just the first installment of this band, but also the last White Stripes album. Which makes sense: While The White Stripes’ signature is manic energy, short but potent guitar riffs and plenty of whooping and hollering, The Raconteurs present more meticulously crafted songs ruled by madly shifting dynamics.

The template is classic British rock, from bluesy, psychedelic folk of the Traffic era (“Old Enough”) to the organ-drenched prog rock of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (“Rich Kid Blues”) and of course, plenty of Led Zeppelin and Beatles. White’s indulgence keeps this album charging forward; with every quiet moment you can be assured a hurricane is right around the corner. His squawky guitar stomps through like Godzilla on each song, from speedy punk (“Five on the Five”) to euphoric pop (“Hold Up”) to heavy blues (“You Don’t Understand Me”) to even a big soul number peppered with horns (“Many Shades of Black”). Unlike the first album, the sequel is bigger, brasher, running off the rails as much as it stays on track. White is unrivaled as a singer and on this album, he and the music are a match for sounding larger than life.

Kylie Minogue, “X” (Capitol)

Unlike U.S. pop divas who tend to be poker-faced and prone to stints in rehab, Australia’s Kylie Minogue always had a devilish sense of humor, a remarkable asset considering that she has making music for 20 years. Her tenth album “X” feeds on those charms; it’s a stylish yet warmly executed Euro-pop spectacle. Maybe it’s because she battled and won a fight against breast cancer three years ago, but Minogue sounds ecstatic on songs pumped with Daft Punk robotics (“Wow”) and other, more straightforward bubblegum workouts (“In My Arms”).

Like most retrofit dance albums, the 1980’s are not far behind which explains why dimly-lit adrenaline rushes like “The One” sound so much like New Order. “X” hits a snag when it detours into torch song territory; otherwise this is a party that demands full attendance.

The Black Keys, “Attack & Release” (Nonesuch)

Who can blame punk-blues duo The Black Keys for hiring star producer Danger Mouse to spice things up on their new album? Guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney spent four albums finding new ways to reframe their alchemy of gutter punk blues. With this fifth, the duo and Danger Mouse (who is also the non-verbal half of Gnarls Barkley) reinvent the band’s sound while still remaining true to its brute force. Thanks to additional players best known for their collaborations with Tom Waits — guitarist Marc Ribot and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney — the music sounds like it’s growing out the window of a junk shop. On “Psychotic Girl,” the Mouse streams airy vocals over synthesized waves and a clucking banjo, both to spooky effect.

Despite the ambiance, Auerbach and Carney still swing the sledge, their forte considering the amped-up “Strange Times” and other searing songs here. As an experiment, two versions of “Remember When” are included — the first, a slow, sludgy version peppered with Danger Mouse’s sparkly effects, the second a turbocharged basement version that better suits the song’s lament. After that, only one thought remains: Who needs a Led Zeppelin reunion?

Clinic, “Do It!” (Domino)

Fire up the lava lamp, the fifth album from these masked Liverpudlians is designed to warp minds and renew careers. The British foursome spent the last eight years hiding behind surgical masks while releasing albums that ranged from lo-fi pop to epic productions. This band thinks more in sound than song, which translates to albums that wear their respective styles as new coats that eventually get sacked for the next new threads. This edition taps late 1960’s psychedelics; where darkly reverb-ed vocals, fuzzy guitars and a trick bag of effects are meant to evoke mystery and drama but more often than not sound self-consciously weird.

The difficulty comes with singer Ade Blackburn’s cryptic vocals that are set back by so much reverb, he sounds singing through a thick bush. Freeform lyrics — although not so freeform considering they’re printed in the accompanying booklet — dial up the nonsense: “give it, learn it, cap out, share it, see it all before your eyes,” he sings atop watery atmosphere until the inevitable sinister guitar breaks. Despite the production, many of the songs end up as standard hippie jams. The patchwork aesthetic seems to mostly suit the folk-oriented tracks (“Tomorrow,” “Mary and Eddie”) where the ghostly atmosphere gets uncomfortably intimate.

The B-52s, “Funplex” (Astralwerks)

Enter the third phase of this Athens, Ga. band, 30 years after their landmark beginnings as beehived New Wave weirdoes and 20 years after a second coming that introduced “Love Shack” to wedding receptions until the end of time. “Funplex,” their first in 16 years, features the four founding members engaged in roles set from the start: zombie harmonizing from Katie Pierson and Cindy Wilson, ironic shout-outs from Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland’s fun house musical tastes.

Yet this reunion record fails to sound like a retread. Mega-sized club jams like “Pump” rival Peaches and other current day electro-clash stars. Songs like the “Juliet of the Spirits” and the title song stands up to the band’s techno-pop classics, mixing surf guitar and trashy beats. The B-52s are experts at catchy, dancefloor nonsense, but this time the music sounds pumped up, with detonation just seconds away.

The Rolling Stones, “Shine a Light” (Interscope)

The Rolling Stones have eight official live albums in circulation: Does it really need a ninth? Only diehards will find this two-disc soundtrack to the current IMAX blockbuster essential, although even curiosity-seekers might want to cherry pick the song list for individual downloads. Recorded at New York’s Beacon Theater over two nights in Fall 2006, the set delivers requisite hits but with some letdowns — “All Down the Line” sound flattened by the mash-up of horns and backing singers; on “Connection,” Keith Richards sounds particularly frail (maybe it was that tumble form the coconut tree that happened months earlier).

Weak spots get bettered by “Faraway Eyes,” with country harmonizing by Richards and Mick Jagger, massaged by Ron Woods’ blurry slide guitar. Cameos break things up further — the Muddy Waters grinder “Champagne and Reefer” is scorched by Buddy Guy’s unpredictable guitar leads; “Loving Cup” matches Jagger with Jack White, who matches the elder statesman in country soul. Another rarity, “Live With Me,” is a hot-and-heavy duet between Jagger and Christina Aguilera; remove the age difference and the heat is not so creepy.

Justin Townes Earle, “The Good Life” (Bloodshot)

Yes he’s Steve Earle’s 25-year-old son, but this isn’t just another charmed pedigree signing. This very likable debut from the new generation Earle stands on its own with an album of old-time country that features hard strumming, hard picking and sweet singing, the combination that sounds generations older than the musicians at hand. Earle is a natural crooner on harmony jewels like “Good Life” and proves a wise storyteller on the Civil War ballad “Lone Pine Hill.”

His subjects are not far removed from his father’s — including the heart-worn beauty “Who Am I Say” and road rambling “South Georgia Sugar Babe.” But these songs are breezier, not brittle. The stylized setting — organ, pedal steel guitar, barroom piano and fiddle dominate — is never over-wrought. Instead, Earle slips into these songs and wears them like a new coat. At just 10 songs and 30 minutes, there’s always room for wanting more.

Van Morrison, “Keep It Simple” (Lost Highway)

Chasing Van Morrison chasing his muse can be exhaustive. Through a seemingly endless stream of albums, the iconic Irish singer has explored the many facets of American music — folk, blues, country, gospel — and filtered them through a Celtic mindset and a cynic’s soul. “Keep It Simple” is unremarkable but compared to the cover albums and throwaways he’s released in more recent years, it is impeccably wise. Morrison takes his titled mission statement seriously and keeps the majority of songs here dimly lit. Like the guitar licks delivered by UK cult legend Mick Green, the music never desires more than to enhance subtle moods and make nuanced emotions glow.

Morrison’s sensual country (“Lover Come Back”), slinky blues (“How Can a Poor Boy”) and sleepy R&B (“No Thing”) is streamlined with impeccable band arrangements. While these are songs that will hardly make the grade in his inevitable canon, their sound is of a singer already assured of his greatness.

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