This week's Playlist is all comeback kids ...
Public Image Ltd., "This Is PiL" (PiL Official) -- Anger is still an energy for John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), returning to his post-Sex Pistols gang -- the mostly adventurous Public Image Ltd. -- with the first new PiL music in two decades. Featuring the latest lineup of guitarist Lu Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth, "This Is PiL" comes on like the Big Audio Dynamite reunion at last year's Lollapalooza -- you think it's just a nostalgia romp, but it fits into current scenes and sounds better than expected.
Recorded at Steve Winwood's country studio, these dozen tracks find Lydon bounding and ranting like Mark E. Smith's strident, angrier cousin, opening the album and the title track with a gasping entreaty, as if he's belching the alphabet but instead saying, "Lucky you!" and shouting his reintroduction to the band over and over. There's a lot to compare with the Fall, actually -- the way the band and the singer seem to operate in different rooms, studios, maybe even worlds, and the way things really crackle when those streams finally cross.
"This Is PiL" meanders between instantly accessible tracks ("Terra-Gate," a superb, driving rocker dampened only by Lydon's molestation of his rhyming dictionary), some truly weird stuff ("It Said That" sounds like two dissonant light operas playing simultaneously) and some truly terrible ("Human" is horribly dull). "We come from chaos / You cannot change us / You cannot explain us / and that's what makes us," Lydon quips in the high-stepping single, "One Drop." The rest of the album evidences a commitment to musical chaos, blooming beautifully in wide-open spaces such as the "Lollipop Opera," in which the bass still wobbles (without co-founder Jah Wobble) through a wonderfully wonky rhythm while Lydon natters on, chewing a rant buried deep in the mix until he jabbers a stream of gibberish through a megaphone.
"Mad as you are, you're probably fake," Lydon barks in "Terra-Gate." This comeback document is rife with madness and artifice, surely, but also continuing fodder for current punks who think outside the spiky guitar-bass-drums box as well as new converts to bass-heavy electronic music and dubstep. Ol' Grampa Rotten sounds batty as ever but remarkably up-to-date.
Ultravox, "Brilliant" (EMI)
Men Without Hats, "Love in the Age of War" (Distribution Select)
Talk about unnecessary, unasked-for comebacks. Ultravox reunited its original lineup -- complete with singer Midge Ure and violinist Billy Currie -- in 2009, which now has resulted in the New Wave band's first album together in 28 years (marking from 1984's "Lament," before drummer Warren Cann departed). Worth the wait? It doesn't sound as if any time has passed at all, and not in a good way. "Brilliant" is loaded with leaden aspiring epics, each one drenched in echo and pretentious piano and all of it capitalizing on the wrong parts of the group's early-'80s heyday. It wasn't all "Vienna," you know -- Ultravox began with some really interesting and challenging punk-synth ideas -- but this outing is one big "Vienna" sausage. New Wave wallpaper.
Amazingly, though, Men Without Hats barge bare-headed back onto the scene with an album that ably defends the honor of the synth-pop trifle. Enshrined forever as architects of the "Safety Dance" (ugh, the maypole, that dwarf ...) Montreal's MWH remain compulsively catchy throughout another set of blippy, mildly melancholy tunes. Released from their 1980s amber, they're given just enough fresh air from producer Dave "Rave" Ogilvie to blow out some cobwebs, but the traditional emotional tension and streamlined synthesizers -- not to mention Ivan Doroschuk's warm-but-dour baritone -- are readily identifiable and surprisingly solid. Lyrics are clichéd as all get-out, but you can still dance if you want to.
Garbage, "Not Your Kind of People" (Stunvolume) -- On their first album in seven years, drummer Butch Vig -- who assembled this band following his production success with Nirvana ("Nevermind") and Smashing Pumpkins ("Gish") -- drags his mates from the 1990s landfill and dirties up more electro-pop influences in the name of sneering cool. The trashy allure is intact, even if its salesmanship is still a little hard. Shirley Manson, struggling to form-fit her dark vixen image into a slightly more mature persona, promises out of the gate that she's still "your dirty little secret" ("Automatic Systematic Habit"). Not quite a cougar, her yowls and purrs still enliven things when they can be heard above the riffy ruckus raised throughout this eclectic, sometimes unfortunately funky and topical ("Blood for Poppies") set. The bright spots are occasional, but include "Big Bright World," a distorted ballad beamed direct from Berlin (the band) and the taut and aptly-titled "Control" (harmonica break!).
Glenn Frey, "After Hours" (Universal) -- The latest boomer jazz-club nightmare comes from Eagles singer Glenn Frey, who throws a few of his piles of money at some fine session musicians to produce this God-awful set of peaceful, easy feelings -- his first solo outing in 17 years. Les Paul he ain't, but lawdy how he tries. Ping-ponging through curious selections such as a vaguely creepy "My Buddy," a ham-fisted "The Look of Love" and a lively "Route 66" -- the only track here that sounds remotely natural and comfortable for him -- Frey only proves that the heat is off. What hath Paul McCartney wrought?