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Record Rack

When Irish eyes are California dreamin'

October 26, 2003|Robert Hilburn; Randy Lewis; Agustin Gurza; Richard Cromelin

The Thrills

"So Much for the City" (Virgin)

****

One of the hardest things in pop music is coming up with uplifting songs that are poignant, not just cheerful -- and this Dublin quintet's ability to do it so consistently makes this one of the most enchanting rock debuts in years.

Like Ryan Adams, the Thrills weave their influences into the music so freely and proudly that the album invites you to draft a list of them as you listen. The Thrills' primary touchstones range from the wistful introspection of Neil Young to the heartfelt, country-flavored rock tones of Gram Parsons.

But the band, whose arrangements also recall the sweet charm of the Beach Boys and the jug-band bounce of the Lovin' Spoonful, mixes the influences so imaginatively that this CD carries its own musical stamp.

Where many albums alternate between optimistic and melancholy moments, few mix those qualities so frequently and hauntingly in the same song.

"Well tell me where it all went wrong," Conor Deasy sings softly, with just a faint touch of instrumental support at the start of the opening track, "Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far)." The music then brightens with a rollicking, percussion- and piano-driven beat along with a seductive sing-along chorus that defies you to feel blue.

As the album unfolds, the alternating hope and despair move from personal relationships to wider issues of values and lifestyle. The band is even so playful in places that it sneaks a sly banjo into the arrangements and salutes the disarming pop vitality of the Monkees. Yet the Thrills can be stark and sobering, as in "Hollywood Kids," a look beneath the seductiveness of Southern California glamour in the tradition of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City" and the Eagles' "Hotel California."

The album won't be in stores here until Nov. 4, the same day the band plays the Troubadour, but it has been available for months in England, where much has been made of the numerous California references in the songs. The band spent four months in California before recording the album, and it uses the locale to reflect -- with fresh eyes and hearts -- on the themes of optimism and disillusionment.

By the final number, many illusions have been shed, but not all hope. Against a swirling, church-like organ backdrop, Deasy declares, defiantly, "We'll dance till the tide creeps in."

-- Robert Hilburn

Sincerity marks idol of Clay

Clay Aiken

"Measure of a Man" (RCA)

**

As it turns out, creating an American idol is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do next.

The attractive face, appealing voice and winning personality that earned Aiken runner-up honors in the last "American Idol" contest didn't offer much clue about what he may have to say musically. Neither does his debut album, filled as it is with offerings from the factories of Desmond Child and other youth-pop song scribes.

Mastermind producer Clive Davis surrounds Aiken with studio pros who create glistening, radio-ready sounds recalling such mid-'80s Britpop acts as Tears for Fears and George Michael.

A reverb-drenched guitar over a loping hip-hop track helps the album-closing "Touch" stand out from the Top 40-targeted pack. Other songs, most expressing romantic longing or pledging eternal love, sound indistinguishable from the 'N Sync/Backstreet canon. (Fans who didn't buy Aiken's "This Is the Night" single will still have to if they want his B-side recording of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which isn't on the album.)

Aiken dispatches this stuff earnestly, if predictably, a sincerity that transcends the formulaic material occasionally emerging through the idol chatter.

-- Randy Lewis

Stripped to the caustic bone

Randy Newman

"The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1" (Nonesuch)

*** 1/2

This is the ideal package if you are trying to convince someone that Newman is a brilliant songwriter who, like Paul Simon and a few others, bridges the gap between the classic American Songbook craftsman tradition and the more personalized singer-songwriter style of the modern pop age.

What makes Newman doubly rewarding is that the wryness and commentary of his vocals make it hard to imagine anyone else doing the songs better.

Though he can write straightforward ballads such as "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," Newman's strength is expressing strong viewpoints (frequently about the dark or vain side of human nature) with unflinching humor -- from the showbiz arrogance of "It's Lonely at the Top" to the reverse prejudice of "Rednecks."

Because Newman is backed only by his own piano, the album -- the first step in a three-volume series in which Newman is reinterpreting his material from the last three decades -- sounds at times like the demonstration tapes that publishers pass around to record companies when hoping to get singers to record the material.

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