Keane: Under the Iron Sea (Island)
For that Difficult Second Album, Keane have devised a vague thematic overview, aiming for "a sinister fairytale-world-gone-wrong". Which doesn't sound welcoming. It does, however, offer a excuse for the repetitive nature of the songs - though I suspect there's a limit to how many expressions of confused yearning and pleas for reconciliation even Keane's fans can take. The best track is single "Is It Any Wonder?" , on which wah-wah keyboards point up the anti-Blair message, the perceived betrayal prompting reflection upon whether "love is just a lyric in a children's rhyme/ a soundbite". It's a much sharper expression of the idea than the closing "The Frog Prince", which with its references to broken promises and "your prince's crown" offers a clumsy metaphor for the PM's crumbling Camelot. Elsewhere, the earnest prog-rock overtones of the arrangements and Tom Chaplin's tenor tend to smother the songs, their windy, anthemic manner ladled into empty vessels.
Mr. Lif: Mo' Mega (Definitive Jux)
Hip-hop remains safe in the hands of the Def Jux crew, with this second offering from Mr Lif. As usual, El-P's production sounds like nothing else in rap or rock, with his extraordinary backing track for Lif's fast-food attack "The Fries" standing out for its shifts through several discrete passages of sinister, scarified industrial noise and beats. Lif, too, is on form again, "back with a bloody axe and some muddy facts over tracks" as he savages Bush over Iraq and Katrina.
Technically, he's clever - the double-tracked vocal of "Ultra/Mega" is like overlapping dialogue in a screwball comedy - and "Collapse" and "Murs Iz My Manager" offer sharp, witty commentaries on the hip-hop business. But there's an underlying pessimism to Lif's art, best realised in "For You", a parody of all those R&B/hip-hop tracks written for the artist's children. In Lif's case, it's written to his unconceived child: "You're not here/ Because I fear/ What's in the future".
Gomez: How We Operate (Independiente)
Over subsequent albums, the promise evident on Gomez's 1998 Mercury Prize-winning debut, Bring It On, was squandered in successive orgies of self-indulgence. Each time, I suggested that an outside producer was required to rein in their excesses, and How We Operate confirms my diagnosis: with the experienced Gil Norton at the helm, these performances are the band's most focused and productive since that debut. At last, the songs sound like songs again, and pretty decent songs (for the first two-thirds of the album, at least). Themes of change and reconciliation dominate: "Chasing Ghosts with Alcohol" is a reflection on old friends and old songs now passed over, "Charley Patton Songs" searches for remnants of antique meaning in modern America, and several songs, including "See the World" and "How We Operate", grapple with the need to settle old scores peacefully. Best of all is " Hamoa Beach", a lovely, shuffling summery groove offering advice to a frightened friend.
Sandi Thom: Smile... It Confuses People (Viking Legacy/RCA)
There is a certain irony in the way Sandi Thom used the internet - in effect, the home of her generation's youth community - to bemoan the lack of a youth scene to rival those of the hippies and punks; one suspects she realises the circumstances may be intimately connected, that people prefer virtual friendship to the real thing. "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (with Flowers in My Hair)" is like "American Pie" turned on its head, with that earlier anthem's celebration of the expansion of rock'n'roll youth culture replaced by a desire for its contraction, back to a time " when the head of state didn't play guitar". It's a catchy enough piece and original enough to merit its success, but hardly enough to carry an entire album, even one as short as this. It's pleasant enough in parts, sort of K.T Tunstall lite. Which is very lite indeed.
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