This CD cover image released by New West Records shows the latest release by John Hiatt, "Mystic Pinball."
This CD cover image released by New West Records shows the latest release by John Hiatt, "Mystic Pinball." (AP Photo/New West Records)

JOHN HIATT "Mystic Pinball" (New West, 3 1/2 stars)

John Hiatt opens his new album with "We're Alright Now," a rocker that's as optimistic as it gets: "The sun comes up every morning / Even when it's too cloudy to see."

Of course things don't stay so sunny. Throughout his four-decade career, Hiatt has also explored darker territory with visceral acuity and narrative vividness. That skill remains sharp, whether he's singing about the "Bite Marks" his baby has left on his mind and soul, taking a bullet to the head as the victim of a love triangle in the noirish "Wood Chipper," or feeling so invisible that "Blues Can't Even Find Me."

The music packs as much punch as the lyrics. Album title aside, there's little of the mystic or airy about Hiatt's approach: It's heavy on bluesy rock with a dash of sax-fired R&B and some gentle acoustic touches, all framing his well-cured growl. At the end of "My Business" (as in, "My baby don't like my business"), he even cuts loose with a howl, punctuating the primal feel of the music and his continuing creative and physical vitality.

- Nick Cristiano

MUSE "The 2nd Law" (Warner Bros, 3 stars)

If you paid attention only to the Muse that played London's Summer Olympics, or to their new album's first song, the bombast the British trio is known for might dominate. The late Freddie Mercury, of Queen, would be proud to call the sleekly motivational "Survival" and "Supremacy" his own, with thunderous theatrics on full anthemic display, to say nothing of vocalist Matt Bellamy's operatics.

After that double blast of eminence, "The 2nd Law" finds Muse doing something rare in the trio's catalog - subtlety.

Melodious at every turn, Muse jumps into newfangled electronic music headfirst, with the gorgeously orchestrated "The 2nd Law: Isolated System" and the bubbling dubstep of "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable." There, Bellamy drops the hysteria (and octaves) a notch and settles in for a busy but languid EDM-based ride. On the effortlessly catchy "Madness," the electro proceedings are stripped to a drum track and a synth squiggle, leaving Bellamy handsomely naked.

It's not perfect. "Panic Station" is funked-up (and lousy), and "Liquid State" veers close to unfortunate heavy metal. But the dance-pop dynamics of "Follow Me" and bassist Chris Wolstenholme's impressively caustic "Save Me" help make this Law one stunningly lovely mandate.

- A.D. Amorosi

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS "Transcendental Youth" (Merge, 3 1/2 stars)

John Darnielle's songs are always psychologically astute. They're first-person narratives, full of self-incriminating details and plainspoken insights, from characters in situations of psychological conflict with either themselves or loved ones. During the 20-plus years he has released albums as the Mountain Goats, the edges have softened on the presentation of his songs but not on the subject matter.

"Transcendental Youth" sounds inviting and often pretty, but it depicts characters wrestling with demons. "In Memory of Satan" is a nightmarish tale of someone "locked up inside (him)self," set to a gentle, stately piano ballad with soft horns. "Cry for Judas" opens with the declaration, "Some things you do just to see how bad they'll make you feel." It's a perky acoustic guitar tune with a jaunty horn arrangement. "Even awful dreams are good dreams," Darnielle claims in "Harlem Roulette," and "Transcendental Youth" proves it.

- Steve Klinge

A.C. NEWMAN "Shut Down the Streets" (Matador, 3 1/2 stars)

A.C. Newman's previous two solo albums suffered slightly from not including his bandmates in the New Pornographers. The albums were good, but it was too easy to imagine them benefiting from the Pornographers' over-the-top power-pop arrangements. "Shut Down the Streets," while not a dramatic departure from his previous work, creates its own identity, even with Pornographers bandmate Neko Case singing prominent backing on most tracks. It's less cryptic and less forcefully elaborate than before, but no less carefully constructed or hook-ridden.

The arrangements use orchestral-pop elements - flutes, clarinets, vintage organs, strings, gentle banjo - and rarely strive for electric catharsis. There's still wit, notably in "There's Money in New Wave," which Newman addresses to his newborn son, but "The Troubadour," "You Could Get Lost Out Here," and the title track (a reflection on the death of Newman's mother) are sober without being somber. Whatever the context, Newman seems incapable of writing a song that isn't unpredictable or catchy.

- S.K.


Country/ blues:

JAMEY JOHNSON "Livin' for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran" (Mercury Nashville, 4 stars)

Jamey Johnson's last two albums deservedly went platinum and gold, respectively. Now he's using his clout to pay a star-studded tribute to one of the all-time great country songwriters, Hank Cochran, who died at 74 in 2010 (but not before Johnson got a chance to befriend him).

As Johnson observes in the media materials accompanying the album, "Hank's songs bring out the best in everybody." That's certainly the case with the deep-voiced Johnson himself, who shows he's as good with an elegant, world-weary ballad as he is with up-tempo honky-tonk. It's also true of the big-name guests who sing with him here. They range from Cochran peers such as Merle Haggard ("I Fall to Pieces"), Willie Nelson ("Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me"), Ray Price ("You Wouldn't Know Love"), and Kris Kristofferson ("Love Makes a Fool of Us All"). Contemporary stars are here, too, including Alison Krauss ("Make the World Go Away"), George Strait ("The Eagle"), Ronnie Dunn ("A-11"), and Lee Ann Womack ("This Ain't My First Rodeo"). Even the weakest link here, Elvis Costello - we've never bought him as a country balladeer - acquits himself decently on "She'll Be Back."

Cochran himself joins Nelson, Haggard, and Kristofferson in a quietly poignant take on "Livin' for a Song," a number that beautifully lays out the life of those who write songs for a living - something Cochran did as well as anyone.

- N.C.



KURT ELLING "1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project" (Concord, 2 1/2 stars)

Jazz singer Kurt Elling, a Chicagoan who has lived in New York since 2008, pays tribute to his new town by focusing on the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway (and a sister building nearby), where an impressive number of songwriters, composers, and record execs practiced their craft. Indeed, the recording opens with voices repeating rejections that no doubt were staples there.

Elling uses the frame to work a variety of songs, from the Great American songbook to those of Burt Bacharach, Jerry Leiber, Carole King, and Paul Simon, who still maintains an office in the Brill.

Elling's reworking of Leiber's "On Broadway" makes a pretentious hash of it. And he transforms King's "So Far Away" into a fruity art song that pales beside the original.

Elling does better when he lets the pieces speak, as he does on Simon's "American Tune." And "Tutti for Cootie" from Duke Ellington, whose publishing company was in the Brill, projects some legitimate sass.

- Karl Stark



SILVER RAIN "Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon on poems by Langston Hughes" Nicole Cabell, soprano; Ricky Ian Gordon, piano (Blue Griffin, 3 1/2 stars)

Of all the music theater composers championed by Audra McDonald, Ricky Ian Gordon is the one closest to the classical world, which is why mainstream operatic soprano Nicole Cabell makes sense in this 21-song recital. Initially, she threatens to overpower the songs with her big-vibrato voice. But she soon scales back (though never quite enough), and Gordon's songs turn out to be tougher than one might think.

In the album notes, he explains that most of them were written quickly - often without being requested by anyone - for love of Langston Hughes' poetry. Perhaps because of those circumstances, the songs feel more unfiltered and immediate than some of Gordon's more ambitious work. Gordon's choice of verse is infallible: Every poem feels as if it was written yesterday, and in a musical marriage that's so seamless you can't imagine the two entities separately. With Gordon at the piano, much of the music reveals inner tension not always apparent in past performances. Surprisingly, Sondheim echoes are few. Most of these songs feel like an urbanized, slimmed-down version of Hugo Wolf, with the music inhabiting the poems in ways that make each piece an ecstatic, sad, quirky world of its own.

- David Patrick Stearns


© 2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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