Andrew Bird
Righteous Babe, sss
Andrew Bird began as an archivist of early 20th-century hot jazz and blues, both as violinist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers and on his first solo albums. In the course of several discs with his band Bowl of Fire, he gradually moved away from genre exercises to arrive at a haunting hybrid, a parallel universe of softly swinging ballads, back-porch folk, and soulful singer-songwriter pop.
The Mysterious Production of Eggs, on which Bird is accompanied only by Bowl of Fire drummer Kevin O'Donnell and occasional guests, mixes childlike wonder and unsettling intimations of mortality.
"Fake Palindromes" sets a tale of murderous monsters to a high-spirited gypsy violin tune, and the eerie, pizzicato ballad "Opposite Day" imagines society's dysfunctional members waking up to find they're running the world. Bird's Eggs is indeed mysterious, and alluring.
Grahm Coxon
Astralwerks, sss
Former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon's previous four solo albums were really glorified demos. 1998's The Sky Is Too High was impressive, but the others had too many sloppily penned love letters to the American indie scene, and sounded especially amateurish compared with Blur's unheralded contributions to the waning Britpop field.
With the aid of Blur producer Stephen Street, Coxon steps up his game on Happiness in Magazines, dropping the cut-rate production and slack-jawed ramblings for inspired jolts of preening rock and occasional arty twists, such as the Ennio Morricone-meets-Scott Walker gloom pop of "Are You Ready?"
"No Good Time" harkens back to the irresistible schoolboys-in-disgrace bop 'n' chug of Blur's mid-'90s period. And unhinged paint-peelers like like "Spectacular" and "Freakin' Out" (which sounds a lot like American power-pop progenitors the Flamin' Groovies) are the kind of carefree melodic racket that makes you glad to be alive.
Unwritten Law
Lava, sss
San Diego's unruly post-punk posse -- how nasty must you be to get kicked off the Warped Tour? -- returns with an unusually rich disc that combines hooks and hammers.
Songs such as "Get Up" and "Because of You" juxtapose hard-core guitar riffs with pop flourishes. The band still builds up a nice head of steam on punkier entries like "Lost Control" and "Save Me." Considering their style and reputation, maybe we should call them Bad Charlotte.
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Philo/Rounder, sss 1/2
Ray Wylie Hubbard has been on such a roll the last decade or so that it was disappointing at first to see that seven of the 10 songs on his new album were written by others. But Delirium Tremolos ends up fitting in beautifully with the late-blooming Texan's most recent work.
It helps, of course, that Hubbard has chosen some terrific songs, from Eliza Gilkyson's troubadour's lament "The Beauty Way," to Woody Guthrie's gospel-fired "This Morning I Am Born Again," the traditional country blues "Roll and I Tumble," and James McMurtry's white-trash epic, "Choctaw Bingo." And producer/multi-instrumentalist Gurf Morlix again provides unerringly sympathetic Americana support for Hubbard's weathered vocals.
The singer's own writing, including the outlaw tale "Dallas After Midnight" and the demon-haunted "Dust of the Chase," is up to his latter-day standards. Like the '68 Camaro and '55 Telecaster he rhapsodizes about in his other original, Hubbard remains, to borrow the title, "Cooler-n-Hell."
The Bluerunners
Bayou Vista, sss
Since they formed in 1987, the Bluerunners have been putting their own stamp on the rich musical culture of their native south Louisiana. Much like Beausoleil, Sonny Landreth, and others immediately before them, they honor Cajun-Creole traditions while giving the music a contemporary jolt.
On Honey Slides, the quintet reclaims its territory after a four-year recording hiatus. "Valse de Grand Pere" and the country-flavored "Ghost of a Girl" and "Big Head" find the band at its most measured and poignant. But much of the time, the Bluerunners deliver irresistible dance-hall grooves, from "Working Man's Zydeco" and "Mardi Gras Jig" to the swamp-rocking "Voodoomens and Voodoo Dolls" and the rabid boogie of "Black Cat Bone."
Pat Metheny
Nonesuch, sss 1/2
Guitarist Pat Metheny's new disc is one 68-minute composition in four ambitious parts. Conceived partly as a protest against a society flogged by sound bites and quick cable images, the recording burrows in deep while hitting the strike zone of a wide audience.
The set sounds initially like sophisticated smooth jazz, but the compositional breadth and clean, laserlike soloing take matters to another level. The music proceeds with Aaron Copland-style clarity and reaches some serious zeniths.
The session unites Metheny with his collaborators of more than two decades, keyboardist Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby, along with two veterans of Metheny's 2002 CD, Speaking of Now: drummer Antonio Sanchez and trumpeter/vocalist Cuong Vu. Added for this set is harmonica player Gregoire Maret, whose homespun tones fit right in.
The feel is perhaps a touch too glorious, as if this could be the long-lost and jazzy soundtrack to the movie On Golden Pond. Yet the set is a cool artifact that sizzles on the solos.
Knight Ridder Newspapers