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December 3, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Music | December 3, 2008 |

As we hurtle recklessly towards the holiday season, music releases enters a strange sort of Twilight Zone. Much like movies, a lot of artists put out their best work earlier in the year. Christmas brings out some of the more commercial efforts, a lotta crap, and the occasional gems. Today, we’ve got a little bit of everything. Welcome to part two.

Killers_day_age.jpgThe Killers: Day and Age
[Island Records]

Seriously, what the hell, Killers? Look, I’m all for bands trying to branch out and try new things, but this is getting ridiculous. Day and Age, the third release from Las Vegas band The Killers, is yet another mixed bag release that does an excellent job of demonstrating the band’s weaknesses more than its strengths. Varying wildly in tone from straight-up pop with punk sensibilities (the opening track, “Losing Touch”), to strange, Erasure-esque dance/electro tracks (the already radio-friendly “Human,” which features one of the worst choruses I’ve ever heard).

Their first album, Hot Fuss was a solid entry into the newly popular, if somewhat derivative, punk/pop/rock scene that drew influences from the likes of Iggy Pop and Bowie — it got cozy with the radio stations, but still managed to sound like an intelligent, interesting release. Sam’s Town, their second effort, tried a little too hard to get a little too serious, instead shooting for a cross between Springsteen-ish seriousness and alternative pretense. It had some great tracks, but was too all over the place to find a cohesive vibe. Day and Age suffers similarly, adding confounding Pet Shop Boys-like flashes to their sound. There are some seriously righteous tracks on it, including the aforementioned “Losing Touch,” and the bouncing, slinky “A Crippling Blow” that effectively uses some synth and processing for a dirty little solo. But for each of those, there’s a far weaker counterpart. “Human” is a frustrating, bizarre track that leaves no pretentious, 80’s synth-pop stone unturned, and “Spaceman” sounds like it belongs in the credits of later John Hughes soundtrack.

Lyrically, they still show some strengths — “A Dustland Fairytale,” which is a horrible title, has some great, almost poetic lyrics (“Change came in disguise of revelation / set his soul on fire / She said she always knew he’d come around / And the decades disappear / Like sinking ships but we persevere / God gives us hope but we still fear, we don’t know”). It’s hindered by a weak, piano ballad opening, but ratchets things up nicely midway through. At the same time, they frequently get bogged down in unnecessary, overwrought pomposity. “I Can’t Stay,” which features every instrument from timpanis to jazzy horns (to it’s detriment, unfortunately — it’s just overcrowded in there), features some real cringers (“Exoneration lost his eraser / But my forgiver found the sun”). Ugh.

There is always something to be said for concept and theme albums. Similarly, some bands have great success when they experiment a bit. But I can’t help but think that The Killers are simply not a good enough band to work that particular conceit. As I said to Kelsi recently, I think that if I merged Sam’s Town and Day and Age, I could create one solid if unspectacular album. Her response? “They seem like a band that only had one album in them.” Perhaps that’s true — perhaps they would have been better off simply being one-hit wonders. There’s no shame in being good at a certain thing and only that thing. But The Killers, in their efforts to show off their diversity and musical acumen, are instead simply exposing their weaknesses.

tomjones.jpgTom Jones: 24 Hours
[S-Curve Records]

Let’s get one thing taken care of first: Tom! Freaking! Jones!
Ok. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the music. When I saw that Tom Jones had an album coming out, I could barely contain my excitement. It may sound completely ridiculous, but 24 Hours was worth the silliness of all that anticipation.

Now, to make one thing perfectly clear - T.J. does nothing new on this album. I mean, new songs, yes, but otherwise? Not so much. But it’s perfect. We don’t turn to T.J. for his originality, or his innovation, or anything other than pure entertainment. And pure entertainment is delivered here with gusto, including a giant heaping of “yes, please!” and a side order of “more!”

I was converted to Jones-ism in about 2003, when I saw him in concert. I was working at the venue where he was performing, and I believe I did basically nothing I was supposed to do that night. Paperwork? No, thanks. Security reviews? Not likely! Watching Tom Jones from the balcony? Abso-effing-lutely. I bought a copy of 24 Hours for myself and one for my father. He was mildly dismissive of the album, laughing at the idea of T.J. and scoffing at the number of producers listed on the album credits. (So! Many! Producers!) Six hours later, he called me to say, a little apologetically:
“We’re listening to Tom Jones, and it’s just… awesome.”
And that’s what it is. Just awesome.

The album kicks off with a bongo-and-electric-guitar riff leading into a cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I’m Alive.” It’s a riff worthy of U2 - which is kind of funny, since Jones actually collaborated with Bono and The Edge on another song on this album. The whimsical “Sugar Daddy” is a goofy paean to masculine virility and tooting one’s own horn that I absolutely wasn’t expecting from ol’ no-humor Bono. (Sample lyric: “I’ve been singing this song / Since before you were born / Baby, you’re invited / But your friend can’t come / He’s a little too excited / Maybe a little too young.”)

However, “I’m Alive,” showcases the Welsh Knight’s astonishing pipes (no pussy vocal correction here) and clues us in to the fact that we have signed up for a candy-coated soul-rich treat, regardless of whether or not we want to contemplate the details of what it means for a man his age to be singing these songs. The lush arrangement of horns and drums is nearly overwhelming, so richly sensual, surprising - until you remember that so many pop artists these days are turning to synth instruments and stripped-down ensembles.

When last we got new material from Jones, it was 1999’s Reload, an album of… well, ok, an album of covers. So I suppose it wasn’t new, exactly, but it wasn’t “Delilah,” either. There are covers, here, too - “I’m Alive” as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Hitter.” Where “I’m Alive” is showy and Vegas-y and fun, “The Hitter” is a little more overwrought, overly considered, and yet still totally enjoyable.

The really good stuff, though, comes in the new tracks. “If He Should Ever Leave You” is a symphony of horn riffs, Vegas lounge style and that TJ smile overlaid on the vocals that is simply irresistible. Also delightful are “Give A Little Love” and “In Style and Rhythm.”

Others have said that the eponymous track is a letdown, not living up to the rest of the album. While it is certainly different from much of the rest, I don’t think it fails at all. This isn’t the first time Jones has sung about capital punishment (“The Green Green Grass of Home,”) but this is bluesier and more thoughtful than “Green Green Grass.”

If there is a song which doesn’t quite make muster, I would point at “Seasons.” This is unfair, perhaps, to a thoroughly decent song - but it’s only decent, which, in light of everything else going on up in he-yah, is enough to make it the album snooze-fest. I may change my mind about this at some point, but I think it stems from an ill-advised drum machine situation. The songs that feature real drummers have much greater play and depth than the ones relying on drum programming. No surprise there, but I really think that “Seasons” suffers most from the programming.

Ultimately, this may not be the best starting place for a love affair with TJ. Even so, it’s a solid, fun, delightful jewel (or jewel-encrusted jumpsuit) of an album that is totally worth a listen or 12. For all of your booze-soaked Vegas sexpot weekends, this is really the only soundtrack I can recommend. And really, the only people who might not like this album? Are people who don’t like fun. And you’re not one of those people, are you? I didn’t think so.

emiliana.jpgEmiliana Torrini: Me And Armini
[Rough Trade Records]

Even if you haven’t heard of EmilĂ­ana Torrini, you most likely have heard her. She gained international recognition after the world heard her sing “Gollum’s Song” during the end credits of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and has been well-known in Iceland since she won the junior college version of “Star Search” in 1994. Because all things Icelandic eventually come back around to Bjork comparisons, I’ll save you the space in the comments section and say she is the Bjork of singer-songwriter folk music.

Her latest album, Me and Armini is her fifth studio album, and although I was recently introduced to her music, it bears the quality and depth of a longtime professional writer and studio artist. Even at the young age of 31, her lyrics are at once tinged with a serene sadness, as expressed in the heart wrenching “Hold Heart” (“hold heart don’t beat so loud/ for me keep your calm / as he walks out on you”) and a forward-looking positivity as in “Big Jumps” (“hey there sunshine lift my heart/ I know life is long but it goes so fast/ I love you never feeling old”) that seem to come from a shrewd understanding of life, love, loss and the importance of the fleeting moment.

I compare her music to singer-songwriter folk, but this album is filled with weighted guitar riffs and instrumentals, and influenced by all musical genres. The title track, “Me and Armini,” has a laid-back reggae beat that melds incredibly well with her light, trill-y voice, while the very next track, “Birds,” is a softly melodic tune that could be found on a favorite alt-country album.

You might need to be a fan of the singer-songwriter to enjoy Torrini’s Me and Armini, but any music lover could find something to appreciate on this simple and easy-to-hear to effort.

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Music | December 3, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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