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British invasion

Music | Keane leads a pack of notable new releases

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

Keane emerged from East Sussex in 2004 as a guitar-free Coldplay competitor. Coldplay lead Chris Martin once asked Tim Rice-Oxley, Keane's pianist, to join Coldplay.

The trio went its own way, following Rice-Oxley's razor-sharp piano melodies and singer Tom Chaplin's huge voice to national stardom. But U.S. critics have always dismissed Keane as an indulgent exercise in bombastic moroseness: pretty and pleasant, but obnoxious and painfully obvious. On their third album, Perfect Symmetry (Interscope Records), the band has ditched some of its towering atmospherics for an almost zany retro-dance sound that is at once strange and completely Keane.

Lead single album opener "Spiralling" is perhaps the shiniest fleck in this kaleidoscope, a reincarnation of 1980s disco accented with a pseudo-tribal percussion track, skittish synthesizers, and plenty of soaring arcs for Tom Chaplin's vocals to travel. The similarly upbeat "Better Than This" shows off Keane melody composition at its best-so addictive that 20 consecutive plays would not be too many.

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Despite Symmetry's irresistible moments, it is impossible to deflect all the criticism: There's no denying that the bombast gets exhausting, the palette sparse, and themes hackneyed. Perfect Symmetry is by turns outstanding, obnoxious, and forgettable. But even if their ideas don't always work, Keane's gifts plod forward-and there's no shame in enjoying their better moments.

A different tune

Snow Patrol's existence has to be a plot by television executives to make sure plenty of huge, weepy rock songs are written to accompany their primetime dramas. The band's tracks have been playing behind emotional scenes since the moment America caught wind of them (the single "Open Your Eyes" alone appeared in 11 TV episodes). But before it was selling out cavernous arenas in the United States, Snow Patrol was wowing its home country, Northern Ireland, with gritty-but-somehow-lovely ruminations on the final moments of doomed relationships.

A Hundred Million Suns (Geffen Records) is the first Snow Patrol record to try a different theme. Frontman and songwriter Gary Lightbody says he determined to focus on healthy relationships, taking in the beauty of the days everything goes right. And though this album breaks little ground, Snow Patrol's signature wordplay has a new heartbeat and their crunchy guitar rock a recharged freshness. The tuneful "If There's a Rocket Tie Me To It" soars, and "Take Back the City" thunders through a love-hate relationship with urban citizenship. A Hundred Million Suns is proof that Snow Patrol does sunny just as well as, if not better, than it does gloom.

Deceptively simple and mature

Matt Hales, a 30-something Brit, calls his one-man band "Aqualung." He's another piano-playing product of the Coldplay "revolution" who first rose to British fame when his first song, "Strange and Beautiful," appeared in a Volkswagen Beetle commercial. On stage, Hales is a picture of unassuming humility, and his records bear that quiet, relaxed elegance. Hushed pauses follow key lyrics, melodies wind away from the most obvious paths to resolution, and anything that might threaten to swell is kept on a tight leash. Ever resistant to excess, Aqualung albums are masterworks of subtlety and intricate musical texture.

This collection, Words and Music (Verve Forecast), is a reverse journey into Hales' artistic chronology, finished out with historic musical references, like a playful cover to Simon & Garfunkel's "Slip-Sliding Away," and "Mr. Universe" submerged in the liquid-organ sounds of the Beatles' "Octopus' Garden." The opener, the brass-edged "7 Keys," may be the finest song Aqualung has ever written. It's difficult to pick a favorite: The listless double vocal in "Everything Changed" that suddenly halts at a dissonant cadence? The wistful violin lead-in to "Arrivals"? The gentle chromatic steps in "Good Goodnight"? They're all pieces of a deceptively simple, mature collection.

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