“Fallen Empires,” Snow Patrol (Island)
There’s a vague significance behind the title of Snow Patrol’s sixth album, a sense of eroded purpose and crumbling dominion, of great things run to ruin. And there are moments on “Fallen Empires,” the album, that halfway gesture toward political targets.
Which is savvy misdirection, given that the songs derive most of their force and feeling from interpersonal tensions. What are at stake here are relationships: between former or future lovers, among friends and family, between a band and its fans. The album’s neat trick is to make those ties feel momentous, as if the republic rests on them.
And why not? Snow Patrol, a five-piece group from Northern Ireland by way of Glasgow, Scotland, transmits its distress signals and exhortations on much the same wavelength as Coldplay and U2, but with more humility and fewer theatrics. Gary Lightbody, the group’s perfectly named front man, sings in an appealingly low-gloss croon, soft but clear, and believably vulnerable. “Frightened, under attack,” he attests over the strobing agitation of the album’s titular anthem. “Fallen flat on my back.” He’s surveying some romantic rubble, or seems to be, until arriving at a sing-along refrain — “We are the light” — that ends the song on a note of determined uplift.
The electro-pop glare of “Fallen Empires” represents a new twist for Snow Patrol, whose best-known previous work, at least in this country, was the twinkling, folk-rockish 2006 single “Chasing Cars.” Putting aside the fact that even Coldplay has recently taken this plunge, it’s a sensible move: The album’s producer, Jacknife Lee, has nudged Snow Patrol just beyond its downy comfort zone.
The band recorded “Fallen Empires” almost entirely in Southern California, beginning with a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree. And whether it was the producer or the setting, the new influence manifests in the cowbell-socking chorus to “I’ll Never Let Go,” which seems meant to evoke not “Joshua Tree” but another U2 album, “Achtung Baby.” Then comes “Called Out in the Dark,” the electro-disco lead single. “As the kids took back the parks,” Lightbody sings, “You and I were left with the streets.”
What makes this all feel reasonably unforced is the abiding earnestness in the songwriting, and not just on ballads like “New York” and “This Isn’t Everything You Are.” During one steadily cresting theme, “In the End,” Lightbody makes a statement of principle in the form of a rhetorical question: “In the end / There’s nothing more to life than love, is there?” Nate Chinen, The New York Times
“Ready for Confetti,” Robert Earl Keen (Lost Highway)
If Robert Earl Keen wasn’t an avid fan of Stephen King before the holiday season, chances are he is now. The best-selling author put Keen’s new album, “Ready for Confetti,” on his “Top 20 of 2011″ list, noting that Keen is “an ironist with a soft spot for both strivers and losers.” Keen is that, all right, and as countless observers have pointed out over the past 20 years, he’s boisterous, cutting and engaging, too.
“Ready for Confetti” isn’t flawless, but for those who have acquired a taste for Keen’s irrepressible spirit and Texas-honed songcraft, rest assured: He rarely disappoints this time out. Highlights? “The Road Goes On and On” is so lacerating that it brings to mind Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” The Western romance “Black Baldy Stallion” soulfully underscores Keen’s ties to Townes Van Zandt’s evocative narratives. “Who Do Man” comes across as a boastful blues novelty from the pre-rock era, and the title track toggles between Caribbean bounce and Southern blues.
Kudos to veteran guitarist and producer Lloyd Maines. He not only oversaw the making of “Ready for Confetti,” but the finesse he displays on a dozen string instruments is one of the album’s brightest charms. Mike Joyce, The Washington Post