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Many Happy Returns

By John Brodeur

Tindersticks

The Hungry Saw (Constellation)

This was unexpected, to say the least: Tindersticks were supposedly a done deal after their last album, with bandleader Stuart Staples having moved on to a solo career. But old habits die hard, thankfully, and Staples has returned to the Tindersticks brand to produce one of the best records of the band’s great career.

The Hungry Saw is a record about the soul, and about soul. Following the mournful piano melody of the album’s “Introduction” (“mournful” kind of describes the entire Tindersticks oeuvre), “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” flickers to life with staccato guitar stabs and tambourine, blasts of horns, layers of flute, and Rhodes piano, and a tight, dry bass guitar. It’s like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds doing R&B, with basso profundo Staples sounding perpetually wounded as he croons, “Our yesterdays tomorrows, they’re here.” It’s hopeful, or at least as hopeful as Tindersticks get.

While Hungry Saw doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of 1997’s Curtains, it finds its own place in the Tindersticks canon by introducing new textures to replace elements that may have fallen by the wayside. Dickon Hinchliffe, responsible for so many of the lush orchestral arrangements of past Tindersticks releases, is gone; longtime member David Boulter steps up with a pair of instrumentals that frame the album’s centerpiece, “The Other Side of the World,” with Sally Hibbert’s noirish violin creating a palpable sense of foreboding that’s elsewhere only hinted at.

“The Turns We Took” lets the album go out with a sigh; it’s a plainly gorgeous ballad, with (possibly) unintentional echoes of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Closer to Home.” For all the possibility presented in the first tracks, “Turns” puts a bit of a past-tense cap on the proceedings. Let’s hope that’s only a figurative past tense, as the revamped Tindersticks clearly have a lot of life left in them.

James

Hey Ma (Mercury/Decca)

Speaking of unexpected reunions, James are back with Hey Ma, their first release in seven years. And the album is everything you’d expect from the Manchester, England-based troopers—you’ll think it’s 1993 all over again when you hear tracks like “Whiteboy,” with its 16th-note hi-hat beat backing vocalist Tim Booth, reaching for the sky as ever. Album-opener “Bubbles” is as full of bravado as anything they’ve done, with the band building the chorus to an anthemic fever pitch under trilling trumpet and piano; the title track finds Booth waxing political about the war in Iraq (“Hey ma, boys in bodybags, coming home in pieces”). Despite a few subpar tracks (“72” sounds like a Charlatans knockoff; lead single “Waterfall” just sounds lazy), Hey Ma is a pretty solid release from a band who’ve been around for more than 25 years, and that’s no small feat.

Sing It Loud

Sing It Loud EP (Epitaph)

Maybe I’m too old for this shit. The singer can’t sing. The lyrics . . . what’s the point, even? They have the nerve to call this power pop? I swear, there must be a rock-band-by-numbers kit being handed out to high-school students in California. Oh right—it’s called ProTools.

Jason Reeves

The Magnificent Adventures of Heartache (WEA/Reprise)

Twenty-two-year-old balladeer Jason Reeves already has a handful of self-released discs to his credit, so his recent major-label signing could be viewed as a reward for all his hard work to date. Or, it could be a reward for crossing the 4-million-views mark on MySpace. (By contrast, the Rolling Stones—who have been a band for twice as long as Reeves has been alive—have just over 3 million views.) But it’s obvious after listening to The Magnificent Adventures of Heartache that Reeves’ success has to do with his songs. The majority of the music here is polished-clean and radio-ready, wrapping Reeves’ appealing voice (reminiscent of Jason Mraz without the white-soul junk) in acoustic guitars and organic keyboard sounds. Reeves is an earnest but likeable writer—at times too precious, as on the half-spoken verse of “The Fragrant Taste of Rain” and the full album title, which adds And Other Frightening Tales to the already unwieldy moniker—with enough big, bright hooks to win him over to a nation of Gossip Girl viewers. (Yours truly included.) Fans of Duncan Shiek and Crowded House might be pleasantly surprised by this precocious “debut.”

Two Dark Birds

Two Dark Birds (Vfib)

Steve Koester’s latest project is a sublime slice of pop-Americana—the style is perhaps best summed-up in the song title “Pernod Blues.” Enlisting help from NYC-scene regulars like Don Piper, Craig Schoen, and Len Small, Koester sings from behind bleary eyes, his voice like a less-defiant Graham Parker, about friends in low places. Almost every song finds its way into the bar (sample opening lines: “Want to go out and get loaded?”; “O Brother where am I?”; “There is no weather inside a bar”); few find their way back out. And that’s just fine: With a “drunk bed” made of Wurlitzer electric piano, moaning lap-steel guitar, and Lambchop-esque string swells, you might as well just down another whiskey and listen to the band play. They’re here all night.


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