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CD reviews: Five more new releases from big names join the fall bounty

Posted 3:03pm on Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012

Anyone else's ears exhausted?

The end of September brings with it one last push of new music, from another galaxy of stars -- why the music industry insists on dumping so much fresh product in such close proximity remains a mystery. But, good news for those searching out something different to plug into an iPod or throw on a turntable -- there is no shortage of worthwhile possibilities out there, and certainly enough stuff to keep a person busy until the next influx in mid-October.

Here's a look at five of this week's biggest releases.

Green Day, '¡Uno!'

The letdown was inevitable.

After scaling considerable heights with 2004's politically charged American Idiot and 2009's 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day tries to reach back to its scrappy roots with ¡Uno!, the first in a planned trilogy of albums (sequels ¡ Dos! and ¡ Tre! are due out in November and January).

But having seen what Billie Joe Armstrong and his bandmates are capable of -- blending punk ferocity with resonant, pointed lyrics -- it becomes difficult to hear these straightforward, carefree songs as anything other than disappointing. Let's be clear: Green Day remains musically proficient, but nothing on ¡Uno! quickens the pulse as much as anything on the previous two albums (or even anything else from the band's catalog, as far back as 1994's breakthrough, Dookie).

The exhilaration of Green Day's kinetic past has been supplanted with a weary maturity -- Armstrong, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt can still make a racket, but it feels perfunctory instead of liberating. (That tired feeling may be more deeply rooted than it first seemed: Armstrong went viral with an onstage rant during the iHeartRadio festival on Sept. 22, and has checked into rehab for substance abuse issues.)

The remaining albums could bring this trilogy's aims into sharper focus, but judged on its own, ¡Uno! too often sounds like a band giving its audience what it thinks it wants, rather than what it might need.

Indeed, listening to a track like the insistent Let Yourself Go, it's hard to discern whether the exhortation is aimed at the listener -- or the band.

No Doubt, 'Push and Shove'

No one was clamoring for a No Doubt reunion, but these days, bands reviving themselves is the fastest way to jump-start otherwise moribund catalog sales.

Surprisingly, Gwen Stefani and her bandmates, reuniting for their first studio effort in more than a decade, have crafted a record seemingly inspired by ideas rather than dollars. Push and Shove is radiant, modern without attempting to change what makes No Doubt appealing and a refreshingly low-key affair in a month littered with overhyped, high-profile, multimillion-dollar projects.

That most of Push and Shove often sounds like the next logical Stefani solo album (her explosively popular, Grammy-nominated solo career helped perpetuate No Doubt's hiatus after its middling 2001 LP, Rock Steady) is part of its charm, even as the other band members help ground the songs in ska and New Wave, the twin engines of No Doubt's creativity.

Produced by a carefully chosen coterie of collaborators, including Major Lazer (aka hip DJ/producer Diplo) and Mark "Spike" Stent, Push and Shove moves from aggressive pop-rock ( Looking Hot) to the soaring, shallow ballad destined for heavy rotation ( One More Summer), and rarely sacrifices cohesion.

If this enjoyable collection and its sure-to-be-subsequent concert tour is the final word on No Doubt, it would mark the rare case of a band coming back to lay claim to its accomplishments without managing to tarnish all that's come before. That, in and of itself, deserves a hearty congratulations.

Mumford & Sons, 'Babel'

Hailed as a breath of fresh air in 2009 for its stripped-down, ramshackle folk songs, Mumford & Sons now feels like recycled oxygen. The group's hotly anticipated sophomore effort, Babel, picks up where the multiplatinum Sigh No More left off, down to the same collection of self-serious songs, uniformly outfitted with slow build-to-explosive climaxes.

Some advance interviews with the British band suggested that new elements (an electronic sheen, perhaps?) would be introduced, but Babel proves otherwise. Every aspect of Sigh No More has been amped up -- more banjo, more kick drum, more ferocious four-part harmonies -- to the point of exhaustion. That's not to say that these dozen tracks, produced by Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire), aren't eminently listenable, because they are. It's the absence of anything remotely different that makes the record such a slog.

Lead single I Will Wait inspires foot-stomping, just as Lovers' Eyes and Below My Feet are suitably haunting, in that mists-on-the-moor kind of way. Lyrically, Marcus Mumford remains weighed down by romantic struggles, yearning for salvation and an acute soul-sickness. But by falling back on what made More so popular, Mumford & Sons has doubled down on the idea that its fans will eagerly buy the same record over again.

Which is a shame, because that line of thinking traps Mumford & Sons (a truly kinetic, must-see live act) into repeating itself until a creative wall materializes or its target audience grows bored and moves on.

Olly Murs, ‘In Case You Didn’t Know’

Amid the endurance test that was this summer’s One Direction concert in Dallas, one performer stuck out, purely because his charisma and talent didn’t feel factory-produced. That it was Olly Murs is somewhat ironic, seeing as the British singer-songwriter is a product of Simon Cowell’s X Factor empire — he’s quietly making in-roads on this side of the Atlantic, with In Case You Didn’t Know, an introductory collection anchored by the irresistible single Heart Skips a Beat.

As with most exports, his catalog’s chronology is complicated: Know is Murs’ sophomore UK album, and his third record, Right Place, Right Time, is being positioned as his American “debut” later this year.

Murs, apart from being very engaging and strenously energetic in concert, embraces a vaguely throwback sensibility, not unlike Bruno Mars. The zippy appropriation of ‘50s pop and modern hip-hop allows Heart Skips a Beat to blossom, but elsewhere on Know, Murs ably evokes sock hops (Dance With Me Tonight) and heart-on-sleeve balladry (This Song Is About You).

Murs moves easily between moods, quick with a smile and acknowledging the sonic cliches, even as he subtly subverts them. In short, he’s a 21st century crooner, polished to a blinding sheen, but authentic and relatable in a way too few would-be pop stars are. Here’s hoping he manages to wedge a foot in the door.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 'St. Peter & 57th St'

Few things evoke the mysteries and pleasures of New Orleans more immediately than Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

This live recording, captured in January at a 50th-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, is a vivid reminder of not only the jazz band's cultural significance, but of the pliability of jazz, that most American of genres. The guest list is impressive -- Allen Toussaint, the Del McCoury Band and Steve Earle stop by -- but the cameos don't distract from the goal: the preservation and promotion of New Orleans-style jazz.

In addition to this live album, the group has also just released 50th Anniversary Collection, which spans music recorded by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band between 1962 and 2010, and a portion of the proceeds from St. Peter & 57th St. will benefit the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program.

All that said, doing good will be the last thing on your mind as the band, led by Ben Jaffe, swings its way through Bourbon Street Parade and Tootie Ma, or brings the house down with St. James Infirmary, which features My Morning Jacket's Jim James on vocals.

Sweeter than beignets from Cafe du Monde and more potent than a hurricane from Pat O'Brien's, St. Peter & 57th St. is a delightful, thrillingly alive document of a sound and style as timeless as they are essential.

Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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