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Pain and suffering all right

March 10, 2009|August Brown; Margaret Wappler; Mikael Wood;

Chris Cornell

"Scream"

(Interscope Records)

*

Baseball fans might remember the downfall of Rick Ankiel. The phenom pitcher led the St. Louis Cardinals to the National League division series in 2000, only to throw five wild pitches in one inning. He had mysteriously lost his ability to throw strikes, eventually ending his pitching career.

Timbaland is having a Rick Ankiel moment. Throughout the '90s and into the 2000s, the producer had the most revolutionary ideas of anyone in hip-hop and pop music. But since producing Justin Timberlake's fantastic "FutureSex/LoveSounds," he's proffered a lukewarm solo album, a treacly OneRepublic remix and the most unremarkable M.I.A. song to date.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Record Rack column: A review of John Wesley Harding's "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead" in the March 10 Calendar section said it was his first album since 1994. It's his first since "Adam's Apple" in 2004.

His shepherding of former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell's new solo album, "Scream," is a fascinating but heartbreaking document of how many wrong decisions one can make in writing and performing a record.

The idea of Cornell's sex-god wail over Timbaland's mechanized funk is appealing. But "Scream" draws out the worst tendencies in both of them. The icy remove of Timbaland's third-string beats here makes Cornell's lyrics like "Pain and suffering. Will come to those. When I get even." feel cartoonish, while Timbaland's vocal processing sucks the elastic virility from Cornell's voice. "Never Far Away" somehow indulges the grievous ballad excesses of both Akon and Daughtry simultaneously. Only the slinky "Ground Zero" arrives at incendiary friction.

After a recovery in the minor leagues, Ankiel made a successful return as an outfielder. Fans of inventive pop and rock music can only hope that both Timbaland and Cornell have similar comebacks in them.

-- August Brown

A way with words and folk rock

John Wesley Harding

"Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead"

(Popover Corps Records)

* * *

In the books world, neo-folkie John Wesley Harding is known as author Wesley Stace, whose novel, "Misfortune," was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. On "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead," his 10th record and first since 1994 -- when he broke to write "Misfortune" and "by George" -- Harding continues to dispatch a novelist's battalion of crisp metaphors, poetic digressions and screwball characters.

His band, the Minus Five, with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, keeps the proceedings grounded in plucky folk-rock formalism.

All of Harding's rich tapestries are admirably high-concept. "Sleepy People," his gentle reproach to late risers, is hinged on a drowsy suite of strings, the softest pillow to deliver his envy. "A Very Sorry Saint" is the lustful, restless admission of a sanctified soul, which runs a tad precious. Sometimes it feels less hammy when Harding forgoes prose's directness for evocative poetry, like his juxtaposed images of skyscrapers and Atlantis on "Love or Nothing."

Harding sings "I was afraid of the dark/As I got older, I learned to put it into quotation marks," which could double as a self-critique. "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead" is hyper-aware, expertly tweaking the lyricist's game at every turn, but it occasionally sacrifices authentic exploration.

-- Margaret Wappler

Happily stuck in adolescence

New Found Glory

"Not Without a Fight"

(Epitaph)

* * 1/2

After a lengthy major-label stint that turned New Found Glory into one of the biggest bands on the supersaturated pop-punk scene, this Florida fivesome has returned to Indieville for its new studio disc, which Epitaph boss Brett Gurewitz has said he agreed to release before the group had even recorded a single note.

Of course, such commitments carry little risk when you're dealing with a known quantity, and the members of New Found Glory have never given any indication that they're dissatisfied with their creative cubbyhole. Unlike the recent Epitaph debut by Thursday, another major-label refugee, "Not Without a Fight" is far from an artistic bloodletting; these guys sound more enthused than ever about their three favorite chords.

Perhaps that's because writing songs about mean girls and true friends now offers an escape from the complexity of adult life rather than a means of imagining oneself inside it. Throughout these dozen tracks, frontman Jordan Pundik describes romantic messes that aren't especially messy, while guitarists Chad Gilbert and Steven Klein bash out fuzzy riffs as precisely calibrated as computer beats.

Producer Mark Hoppus (of Blink-182) helps the band remove all the air from the music, but the effect isn't stifling, it's reassuring. With no leeway available, it's not possible for the train to come off the tracks. The result is adolescence reconfigured as a highlight reel.

-- Mikael Wood

Keeping it safe -- and bland

Madeleine Peyroux

"Bare Bones"

Rounder Records

* * 1/2

Madeleine Peyroux has proved a deft translator with previous covers of Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg, but her latest release, "Bare Bones," the first album on which she has co-written every song (and solo-penned "I Must Be Saved") doesn't take enough risks. Peyroux and longtime producer and frequent co-writer Larry Klein spin many an afternoon reverie but too many songs are stuck in one overly relaxed groove, like a broken massage chair.

Songwriting assists from Steely Dan's Walter Becker widen her palette -- "You Can't Do Me" opens with cheeky piano and Hammond organ, setting the scene for the album's most sharp-witted lyrics: "Rebuked like a Bible Belt border crosser, juked like a payola cart topper -- gone, gone, gone!"

Peyroux doesn't need to abandon her trademark loose-limbed style, but she needs to push at the edges of it more. "River of Tears" is a fine example of what she can do, in her own muted vernacular -- melancholy soaked with sunrise.

-- Margaret Wappler

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