Reviews of new releases from Bruce Springsteen, Arlo, Atmosphere and Gorillaz.

Bruce Springsteen
The Rising

A new Bruce Springsteen album is no longer the seismic cultural event that it once was, but it does give heart to millions of baby boomers raised on his earnest brand of straightforward rock 'n' roll — especially since this is his first batch of all-new material recorded with a band in 10 years.

The Rising certainly does not disappointment. Neither does it amaze. With his E-Street Band back in the studio and producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam) at the controls, Springsteen has delivered a sprawling, 15-song effort that blends a handful of instant classics; a slew of sturdy, workmanlike rock; some subtle new directions; and a couple of lapses into blatant pomp.

Contrary to what some people may have anticipated (or dreaded), The Rising does not dwell on 9/11. Only "Into the Fire' (a simmering paean to firefighters) and the album-closing "My City of Ruins' clearly deal with the tragedy. "There's a blood red circle/ On the cold dark ground/ And the rain is falling down,' Springsteen somberly intones at the beginning of the loping, gospel-flavored "Ruins.' Only the hardest of cynics won't get a little flushed when he repeats fervently "Come on, rise up!'

By and large, The Rising explores the resilience of the human spirit and how love can help us get through tough times. Such a theme applies to 9/11, of course, but Springsteen approaches it from an array of angles. "Worlds Apart' examines a relationship between a Westerner and a Middle Easterner in the context of these tense times: "We'll let blood build a bridge/ Over mountains draped in stars/ I'll meet you on the ridge, between these worlds apart.' The album's most experimental tune, "Worlds Apart' pairs O'Brien's pop wall of sound with Eastern chants from a choir of Sufi singers in the vein of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The Rising doesn't completely stunt Springsteen's playful side. The springy Motown update, "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)' is a feel-good seduction song. "Mary's Place,' a song that wandered into the wrong decade, is the disc's major miscue. Cut in the mold of Springsteen's early Jersey shore rousers, it sounds manipulative and ingenuous, clearly designed as a concert roof-raiser, right down to the crescendo build-up where he repeats (no kidding), "Waitin' for the shout from the crowd.'

Ah, but far more of these songs are valued additions to the Springsteen canon: the pulsating "Empty Sky' (with its punchy blend of acoustic guitar and full-fisted piano); the brooding "Nothing Man;' the driving, urgent "Further On (Up The Road).'

The title song immediately joins the upper echelon of Springsteen's work. Like "Mary's Place,' it employs some of his trademark conceits — like a la-la chant that's just catchy as hell — but here it all comes together into an inspirational anthem about surviving in the face of severe obstacles.

This time the Big Finish raises gooseflesh instead of a smirk. (Columbia)
—Eric Snider

Stab the Unstoppable Hero

On their second full-length, Los Angeles quartet Arlo combine meaty guitar, garage-rock energy and classic pop traditions to outstanding effect. Do you love this particularly clever, charming, well-versed brand of indie-pop but wish that it had more, y'know -- balls? Here you go. It's not I>rawkP> -- too many giant hooks, harmonies and Beatlesy inspirations -- but it rocks like few power-pop releases can without big-shorts adolescence or going all emo on you. I>StabP> opens with five rollicking bursts of manic, memory-adhesive tuneage; from "Little American' through "Culture,' there's nary a misstep nor let-up. "Stoned' and "Bus Stop' recall Liverpool's Finest perhaps a bit too closely, though not badly. The modernized retro-riffage of "Temperature' and "Too Sick to Tango' sag a bit, but nothing ever drops into the category of filler. The disc is one of the strongest end-to-end so far this year, and delivers perhaps the best-executed, most ambitious and rocking guitar-pop this side of Cheap Trick. (Sub Pop)
—Scott Harrell

God Loves Ugly

Underground hip-hop does not discriminate. You can be a white boy from Minneapolis and still have three relatively successful albums. You can be overtly emotional and write songs about love and loss. Such is the case with rapper Slug, who with his group Atmosphere has created a fine piece of hip-hop. On I>God Loves UglyP>, Slug conveys his feelings with clever wordplay and vivid imagery along with strong mic presence, delivery and flow. His partner behind the boards, Ant, uses a bare-bones production style, usually with a basic, yet interesting sample along with the standard boom-bap. The beats can get rather redundant, though, as Ant rarely deviates from his trademark sound; the drums remain similar in tempo feel throughout. Slug flexes a style you might even call emo-rap. Often showing his vulnerability and pain, he is not ashamed to open a vein and let his feelings pour out -- especially on "Fuck You Lucy,' where he lashes out at his ex with vulgar, intense lyrics, spitting rhymes like "I wanna say "Fuck you' because I still love you/ No, I'm not OK, and I don't know what to do.' I>God Loves UglyP> is definitely not your typical radio-friendly rap record; it's a fresh effort that defies some common notions of hip-hop. (Rhymesayers Entertainment/Fat Beats, I>www.fatbeats.comP>)
—Dan Snider

Spacemonkeyz verses Gorillaz —
Laika Come Home

Does the Gorillaz franchise have legs or what? As far-fetched spin-offs go, this one's a keeper. Spacemonkeyz, clearly a compatible species, have taken the tracks from the original Gorillaz disc and remixed them into dreamy, bass-heavy doses of dub. Retrofitted for reggae, they become essentially new songs. Nothing spectacular here, but it works. (Astralwerks) —Eric Snider

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