John Hiatt (New West)
This is a good thing.
Not to sell his recent releases short -- on the contrary, they've been thoughtful, heartfelt, and warm reflections on domesticity, long-term relationships, and growing older -- but it's nice to see Hiatt and his latest backing band cranking it up and making like a garage band rediscovering its roots.
As always, the lyrics are top-notch with Hiatt telling weird stories -- most notably on the terrific, spooky-if-it-weren't-so-funny murder tale "Wood Chipper" (no one will ever sing the word Funyuns so well) -- and throwing together clever wordplay that somehow makes great melodies.
"Mystic Pinball," his 21st release, also features a diverse array of styles ranging from "Bite Marks," a ferocious rocker, to the beautiful acoustic ballad "No Wicked Grin," which sounds like a wise updating of his classic "Have a Little Faith In Me" after a couple has been around the block enough times to run a few marital marathons.
Most of all this followup to last year's "Dirty Jeans and Mud Slide Hymns" is fun. Not to thrown Bruce Springsteen under the bus (oh, who am I kidding, we're tossing him under there right now), but he could learn a few things from Hiatt.
Such as: lose the big thoughts on America, the fussy overwrought messages and arrangements, and just hammer out a great collection of tunes designed to entertain and make some noise. Hiatt's a pro who proves that as a veteran musician you can write meaningful songs that convey your ideas while still rocking out in a most glorious manner.
-- ROD LOCKWOOD
THE IMPOSSIBLE GENTLEMEN
Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker, Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum (Basho Records)
Surely one of the hidden gems of 2012, "The Impossible Gentlemen" is an awesome debut by a jazz quartet made up of four powerful musicians from the United Kingdom and North America.
At the center is pianist Gwilym Simcock of Great Britain, whose dazzling work on the keyboards was gaining a larger international following even before this project came along. Free-wheeling, intensely creative guitarist Mike Walker, who also hails from Great Britain, came up the idea for the band at the Manchester Jazz Festival in 2009. Bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum, both from America and musical partners for nearly 30 years, provide a great complement.
This is a quartet that swings and bops, but in a modern way while also maintaining a traditional feel. All eight gorgeous songs are penned by Simcock or Walker.
There are plenty of intriguing, odd time signatures and back rhythms, and there are a number of times the foursome steps back for delicate, heartfelt (but not overly sentimental) moments. The music is at times searing, complex, and lush, with go-for-the-gut, heartfelt melodies.
The Impossible Gentlemen are great individually. And they're great as a team.
-- TOM HENRY
PUSH AND SHOVE
No Doubt (Interscope)
From the first listen one can tell it was worth the wait. "Push and Shove" returns to the group's type of ska mixed with dancehall, electro pop, and a pinch of magic, expertly dished out by producer Spike Stent. The resulting 11-track album doesn't sound a day over 1995's "Tragic Kingdom," but that doesn't make it dated. It's that rare breed of record that carries the musicians' touch wherever on the time line.
No Doubt songs have a way of letting you know they're not anyone else's. Despite misleading beginning notes such as the light pop touch synth on "Easy" or the exotic violins of "Push and Shove," and the straight rock of "Uncover," they all evolve into the No Doubt sound sooner or later, the type of playful rock that lulls you in with its genuine joie de vivre and lack of artifice.
Gwen Stefani, who has carved a successful career as a solo artist and fashion designer during the band's hiatus, radiates energy and reminds us why she is the ultimate rock chick.
The lyrics of Stefani and Tony Kanal remain in the realm of the romantic, of the mundane insecurities of long-term relationships without losing the poetic edge: "Just like Venus and the morning sun/You and me got gravity."
-- CRISTINA JALERU, Associated Press