BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN "Magic" (Columbia) 4 stars
When Bruce Springsteen tears into the line, "I want a thousand guitars/I want pounding drums" in the lead track on the first E Street Band album in five years, it almost sounds like a directive to the producer.
"Magic" is a rock record, a big, proud and loud full-band album that should bear the printed legend on its cover, "Play this at full volume," like some old rock records.
"Radio Nowhere," an honest indictment of contemporary radio's failure in recent years - "Dancin' down a dark hole/Just searchin' for a world with some soul" - sets the tone with its slashing guitars and wall-of-sound drumming. After spending one too many years indulging his folk fetish with those Pete Seeger cover CDs and the bone-dry 2005 acoustic solo effort, "Devils & Dust," Springsteen has made the classic-sounding E Street Band album his hardcore fans have hungered for since at least 1984's "Born in the USA" - or probably dating back to "The River" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." ("The Rising" in 2002 was an E Street project, and a wonderful album, too, but its heavy 9/11 theme and sonic flavor felt more like a Springsteen solo).
Yet while "Radio Nowhere," "Gypsy Biker," "Living in the Future" and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," with its fond homage to life along the Jersey shore, provide familiar musical and lyrical thrills for Springsteen devotees, "Magic" pulls Springsteen out of his comfort zone for some of the album's best moments.
For example, the tuneful "Your Own Worst Enemy" features an unexpectedly lush Brian Wilson-styled arrangement while the gorgeous title track conjures some of "Tunnel of Love's" amusement park atmospherics but places them in a lovelier, more tender place. "I'll Work For Your Love" initially feels like a typical mash note to wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa, but, at 58, there's a refreshing sweetness to hearing this husband and father of three promising to "work for your love, dear ... What others may want for free/I'll work for your love."
One could easily nitpick and fault Springsteen for including the stark "Terry's Song," a tribute to a departed friend, as a bonus track. It doesn't fit and disrupts the album's flow. Brendan O'Brien's production can also be too dense (the CD's fidelity seems to improve as the volume is boosted). Overall, these songs promise to sound even better sequenced between the old staples on the group's fall tour. Four decades on, Springsteen's muse remains fully engaged.
Pod Picks: "Your Own Worst Enemy," "Magic," "Last to Die."
MELISSA ETHERIDGE "The Awakening" (Island) 2 stars
On Melissa Etheridge's ninth studio album, the Midwestern singer-songwriter has gone full-on soapbox by issuing an hour-long CD that might well be her most personal to date.
On the aptly titled "The Awakening," Etheridge waxes political and comes to terms with surviving breast cancer and raising children.
Etheridge, who is in fine voice, ignores today's iTunes singles world and opts for a 16-track, concept-oriented album, mixing short song snippets with full-length tunes. The album is meant to be listened to as a whole.
She won't make any new fans with this approach; this is an album for the converted, and even long-time Etheridge fans may find this slow-going and musically repetitive. Only on the amusing rocker "Threesome" does Etheridge flash a sense of humor and hit you with catchy heartland rock.
Otherwise, the energy of early Etheridge classics like "Bring Me Some Water" and "Like the Way I Do" is sadly missing. Her summation of a life well-lived is also devoid of poetry or insight: "All there is, is atoms and space/Everything else is illusion," she informs us right from the start on "All There Is." Given that banal observation, why bother taking the remaining 59-minute journey?
Pod Pick: "Threesome."
JAMES BLUNT "All the Lost Souls" (Custard/Atlantic) 2 ½ stars
James Blunt's ubiquitous "You're Beautiful" literally chased me out of a bookstore once. It was its combination of a high, keening voice and a sappy lyric and melody that made Barry Manilow seem butch. I had to escape that sound poisoning the store's PA system, but the tune became so popular it was impossible to avoid forever.
Can't say that the singer-pianist has toughened up on his follow-up album, except this time he's channeling early `70s easy listening stars like Gilbert O'Sullivan, Bread and the softest side of Elton John. While that sounds ghastly, he's come armed with some appealing melodies and has beefed up his production a bit.
The highlight, "1973," is an uncanny throwback to AM radio pop with puzzling lyrics. "I will always be, in a club with you in 1973, singing `Here We Go Again,'" he sings. It makes no sense given that, at 33, Blunt was a mere collection of cells (if that) in 1973. But whatever. It's a catchy, near perfect pop single. Worth sticking around the bookstore to hear.
Pod Picks: "1973," "Give Me Some Love," "One of the Brightest Stars."
MARK KNOPFLER "Kill to Get Crimson" (Warner Bros.) 2 ½ stars
The former Dire Straits guitarist and vocalist's fifth solo album (not counting numerous soundtracks and collaborations with Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris) is, like the others, exquisitely crafted background music.
Knopfler plays guitar with restraint and finesse, but never cuts loose the way he did on his old group's "Love Over Gold" or "Making Movies" records. The Celtic and folk tunes are never less than pleasant and the engineering is peerless.
But aside from the catchy, pop-oriented charmer "Punish the Monkey," nothing here makes this album any more essential than his other tasteful post-Straits releases. Perhaps Knopfler ought to follow pal Sting's lead and put the old band together again.
Pod Pick: "Punish the Monkey."