The track list of the first new AC/DC album in eight years includes tantalizing titles such as "Skies on Fire," "War Machine," and "Smash 'n' Grab." Could it be that these now-mature musicians are turning their attention to global warming, the Iraq war, and Wall Street greed? Of course not. Even Wayne Newton changes his act more often than AC/DC. Once again, the antipodal rockers have stuck to the template of three-minute songs with three chords and double-entendres. When the band isn't writing songs about girls, it traffics in rock 'n' roll clichés (no less than four songs have "rock" in the title). To be fair, nobody buys an AC/DC album for the lyrics. What you want are stompers that are both primal and primordial. Those elements are best exemplified by the opening track, "Rock 'n' Roll Train." It starts with a lone Angus Young guitar riff. The drums enter with the force of a horse kick. And Brian Johnson's snarling rasp is still dry enough to suck up all the humidity in a concert arena. "Black Ice" has its share of simple pleasures. But, apart from "Anything Goes" – almost a pop song by AC/DC standards – the unvarying tempos and over-familiar formula will give your ears ADD by the time Track 15 rolls around.
RYAN ADAMS & THE CARDINALS: Cardinology (Lost Highway)
Credit "Cardinology" for saving Ryan Adams. For years, the songwriter struggled to live up to the promise of his talent by veering between musical genres, seemingly unsure what sort of artist he wanted to be. His reputation was further diminished by a tendency to release several uneven albums a year rather than marshaling his best material for one killer disc. But Adams found a more even keel with a new band, The Cardinals, on 2005's "Cold Roses." The band's subsequent releases haven't always equaled that of Adams's former alt-country band, Whiskeytown, but he seems more focused now, and the group's blend of country rock and garage rock suits him. "Natural Ghost" exemplifies the beauty of "Cardinology": Adams's voice switches from earthy baritone to weightless falsetto as lap steel guitars sigh in the background. The musicians occasionally turn up their amps – "Magick" has a glam-rock guitar riff – but most songs are pastoral in feel. The quieter moments allow one to appreciate imagery such as Adams's description of a neighborhood that's "just the dumps/ with cars iced up/ perfect for writing on if you're wearing gloves." Overall, "Cardinology" makes a strong case for Adams's musical redemption.
The future of Rilo Kiley is uncertain. But the future of its vocalist isn't. On her second solo album, Jenny Lewis sticks to a rootsier sound than that of her former band. Lewis's voice, a beguiling instrument poised somewhere between Edie Brickell's and Emmylou Harris's, elevates even the album's more pedestrian material. Fortunately, there are many terrific songs here worthy of Lewis's high-profile guests. Elvis Costello straps on a guitar and plenty of swagger for a duet on the Tom Petty-like "Carpetbaggers." Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes makes an appearance at the 5:30-minute mark of "The Next Messiah," a blues epic with the sort of musical zigzags one only expects in progressive rock. And when actress Zooey Deschanel drops by for the piano-and-strings ballad "Trying My Best to Love You," it sounds like two delightful teens singing along to the radio. But it's the title track, featuring just an acoustic guitar and four backing vocalists huddled around a microphone that ranks as one of the most gorgeous songs you'll hear all year. One of the most heartbreaking, too. "I found myself a sweetheart/ with the softest of hands/ we were unlucky in love," she sings with audible ache. On this record, emotions are never far from the surface.
KEANE: Perfect Symmetry (Interscope)
What's that I hear on the new Keane album? Could it be ... a guitar? The British trio, consisting of pianist Tim Rice-Oxley, drummer Richard Hughes, and singer Tom Chaplin has previously relied on Steinways rather than Stratocasters. But Chaplin has been taking guitar lessons, and the music – and Chaplin's choirboy voice – is more robust than on the previous two albums. Few could have imagined the band rocking out the way it does on "Playing Along." Keyboards still dominate the album, but they seldom sound like traditional pianos. This self-conscious sonic makeover sounds contrived on the album's lead single, "Spiralling," but, mostly, it works. "Better Than This" mimics the melodic motif of Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes." "You Haven't Told Me Anything" borrows sounds from a 1980s Atari game. Just as catchy is the title track, a meditation on the futility of eye-for-an-eye violence: "This life is lived in perfect symmetry/ what I do, that will be done to me." Keane forged its reputation with indelible pop tunes but, true to its title, "Perfect Symmetry" balances musical strengths with meaningful words.
MARILLION: Happiness is the Road (Intact)
One of the very best albums of the year, by a British band you may not have heard of, owes its inspiration to a most unusual doctor. When Marillion's singer, Steve Hogarth, had a physical breakdown during a tour, a Dutch physician gave him an unorthodox prescription: Eckhart Tolle's bestselling book on spirituality, "The Power of Now." Its message, about living in the moment rather than being tied to the past or waiting for future happiness, inspired this conceptual record. It's never easy to pull off a double album, but "Happiness is The Road" succeeds because it boasts more diversity than a box of Godiva chocolates. "Nothing Fills the Hole," for example, is a nod to Marvin Gaye, while "Asylum Satellite #1" is a Pink Floyd-like space epic. There are so many strong tunes that the likes of "State of Mind," "Woke Up," and the title track will tussle for airplay in your mental jukebox. But what lingers most is the way that melody and message come together in the emotional clarity of Hogarth's voice.