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Record Rack

Failure invigorates Spaniards

May 18, 2003|Agustin Gurza; Robert Hilburn; Randy Lewis; Natalie Nichols; Steve Hochman

Jarabe De Palo

"Bonito" (Warner Music Latina)

****

The title cut of this complex and scintillating work simply means "pretty." But in Spanish, it also suggests goodness and well-being. Those qualities infuse the vision of this brilliant Barcelona band in its fourth album, a harmonious set of 16 reflective songs that embrace life, even its heartbreaks, uncertainties and failures.

The alt-Latino group's optimistic spirit emerges refreshingly from the commercial failure of its previous release, the ruminating "De Vuelta y Vuelta" (Round and Round). Instead of sinking the sextet, the career crisis seems to have brought a new assurance and vigor (as well as a new record label).

From the opening "Ying-Yang," the album conveys a spirit of contentment, welcoming whatever life may bring. In "Cambia la Piel" (Change Your Skin), singer Pau Dones urges a former lover to overcome bitterness, as an up-tempo salsa beat dissolves into an airy, mellow closing segment reflecting the peace that comes with acceptance.

Musically, the album represents a sophisticated leap, employing an intricate and tailored palette of Latin American rhythms with rock overtones and pop appeal.

-- Agustin Gurza

Two midlife checkpoints

Richard Thompson

"The Old Kit Bag" (Cooking Vinyl/SpinArt)

*** 1/2

John Hiatt & the Goners

"Beneath This Gruff Exterior" (New West)

***

These two respected singer-songwriters have crafted a pair of utterly adult takes on life as considered from the middle of the journey, a point where mistakes, regrets, little pleasures and lessons learned temper the view of the road that lies ahead.

Thompson's collection is the darker of the two, though the canny Englishman never abandons his eye for the humor, irony and absurdity of the human condition. His surgically precise lyrics are like the strokes of Picasso's brush, as economical as they are deeply revealing.

Thompson's folk, pop and rock skills merge seamlessly, and even in the catchiest moments, he stops short of wallowing in the satisfaction of melodic resolution, yet another way of communicating the knowledge that life's pleasures are fleeting, its struggles ever-present.

Hiatt, teamed with the hard-rocking Goners, has worked out his own formula for fitful acceptance of the bad with the good. He offers Zen-like wisdom about staying in the moment in the very un-Zen-sounding "Uncommon Connection."

Both men also acknowledge music's ineffable power to mitigate the down times. Hiatt alludes to the many harsh realities to get bummed about, then says, "Some people call it depression, I call it a song," while Thompson closes his album with a plea: "How I wish I knew/All the old songs they're singing/Such comfort they're bringing/To a heart as empty as mine."

Empty the heart may be at times, but the soul is full when it produces music as rich and true as this.

-- Randy Lewis

Quick spins

Kelly Clarkson

"Thankful" (RCA)

**

The young winner of the first "American Idol" shows off her hip makeover and vote-winning voice on this debut. Her natural talent makes "Thankful" credibly commercial, mostly treacly R&B-pop ballads interspersed with dance tunes and '80s-style pop-rockers. Clarkson tends to substitute vocal gymnastics for emotional substance, and the album feels surprisingly personality-free for a woman who actually seemed to have one. She takes a slightly tougher stance on the funky, sinuous "Miss Independent," but it too soon turns syrupy.

-- Natalie Nichols

Blur

"Think Tank" (EMI)

***

Since these Britpop heroes' last album, leader Damon Albarn took two musical side trips (cartoon hip-hop dub with Gorillaz, African jaunts for "Mali Music"), and the lines between his ventures have kind of, well, blurred. Some of "Think Tank" was recorded in Morocco, some was produced by music mixologist Fatboy Slim, and the sonic experiments result in rich tapestries. "Ambulance" recalls somber David Bowie circa "Low" as Albarn follows his apparently heavy heart. Even the couple of woo-hooey rockers drip in sarcasm. If this is Albarn closing the lid on Britpop, it's an artistically positive move.

-- Steve Hochman

Lisa Germano

"Lullaby for Liquid Pig" (Ineffable/iMusic)

***

The melancholy singer-songwriter's latest creates a creepy sense of slowly drowning, starkly evoking addiction or depression. Watery and unsettling, it's as atmospheric as a Daniel Lanois work, with poppier bits resembling a darker Aimee Mann. Dire, strangely pretty songs mix desperation, giddiness, denial and self-reproach, while subtle instrumentation and Germano's raspy warble convey a fragility that some listeners may find too bleak. But it's a lovely misery, and the closing " ... To Dream" does seek the light at tunnel's end.

N.N.

Continuing the cycle

Staind

"14 Shades of Grey" (Elektra)

***

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