Quick reviews of recent CDs that shouldn't go unmentioned ...
This week's theme: "Yes, they still exist!"
Hanson, "Shout It Out" (3CG) -- OK, Hanson wins. They beat all the people (myself included) who ever knocked their sweet hooks, ruddy faces and boy-band hype. The latest from Oklahoma's undaunted trio is a joyous, jubilant cache of near-perfect pop singles. The whole set is one big 1970s AM-radio anachronism, really. Effervescent and ebullient. Download: "Thinkin' 'Bout Somethin'" would make Ray Charles smile wide, and not just because they copied his "Blues Brothers" scene for the video.
Crash Test Dummies, "Oooh La La!" (Deep Fried) -- Brad Roberts' swirling, deep voice was quirky and interesting for exactly one summer, in 1993 ("Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm"). God has shuffled his feet many times since then, but even He didn't ask for a new Dummies disc. Here's one nonetheless, containing loose circus melodies that make Roberts' low groans sound like a cheap Tom Waits lounge act. Download: "Not Today Baby" is the only track that pulls off the band's over-layered approach, and Roberts sings totally over the top. This stuff's better when you don't take it too seriously.
The Dandy Warhols, "The Capitol Years: 1995-2007" (Capitol) -- This Portland (Ore.) band's first best-of opens with the "sensual pleasure of a beatific blur" that is "Boys Better." The collection then hops back and forth through the Warhols' sneering but surprisingly coherent A-sides. Download: "This Is the Tide" is a new track for this compilation, a brawling riff somewhere between the Fall and mid-career Police, with lyrics about facing up to the end of a career. Uh oh.
Indigo Girls, "Staring Down the Brilliant Dream" (IG-Vanguard) -- The Indigo Girls' dream will never be accused of brilliance, but their songs and shows are at least intelligent and usually enjoyable. Usually. Overall, the recordings on this two-disc live set don't seem like the best picks -- the most energetic, magic performances -- even the opening track, "Heartache for Everyone," recorded in 2006 at Chicago's Vic Theatre. Download: The other track from the Vic shows, "Three County Highway," shows how powerful Amy Ray can be when she doesn't rock.
Howard Jones, "Ordinary Heroes" (DT) -- Cheerful, synthy Howard Jones returns -- a little less cheerful and significantly less synthy. Here's to any artist maturing and growing up, even someone as chipper as Jones, but his moody introspection here is often leaden and a bit of a downer. Download: Parents will get misty-eyed over "Soon You'll Go," a kind of growing-up sequel to Elton John/Bernie Taupin's "The Greatest Discovery."
Ed Kowalczyk, "Alive" (Ear Music) -- The deeply earnest frontman from unlikely '90s chart-toppers Live returns with a solo album of deeply earnest songs that sound exactly like the band. Thus the aping title, no doubt. "Grace" is the anthemic alt-rock single, and "Drink (Everlasting Love)" is a dorky mullet ballad -- and a collaboration with Daughtry. Oh yeah, Daughtry, who stole a lot of Ed's thunder ... Download: "The Great Beyond," a dense sound with a locomotive driving it and the one moment here that wouldn't be mistaken for Creed in a bar.
Ozzy Osbourne, "Scream" (Epic) -- Oh good grief. Ozzy is about as scary as Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, and it's time to just prop him up in there and let the tourists smile gamely as they glide past him and this useless Goth-lite hard rock. Download: "Life Won't Wait" is a fleeting moment of empowering balladry that actually is quite nice.
R.E.M., "Fables of the Reconstruction" (I.R.S.-Capitol) -- This 25th anniversary reissue of this band's most confounding album comes with an extra disc of demos. Like all demos, they offer little extra insight into the development of this burned-out set of tunes, and nary a scrap of enjoyment (except maybe an intact version of "Hyena," which wouldn't show up till the next album but already sounds killer here). Download: "Life and How to Live It," either the studio version or the demo, is still the most underrated song in R.E.M.'s catalog.
Sting, "Symphonicities" (UMG) -- As easy as it sometimes is to sneer at the former Police leader's self-righteousness and pomposity, dude can sing. He can also make various classical ensembles and orchestras dance to his tune. On paper, the idea of Sting reinterpreting the Police's fiery punk-pop single "Next to You" is enough to get the acid refluxing again. On disc, this vanity project keeps to Police and solo tunes that wear a string section well, from the surprisingly light new take on "An Englishman in New York" to the discreet music of "I Burn for You." Download: Do you need to hear "Roxanne" again? No. But this orchestral version invests the lyrics with a mild but poignant depth. Swear.