So catchy in its evocation of third-generation Brit-pop glories was Belle and Sebastian's first decade that this initial second-decade offering feels less than spectacular at first. Why, the very presence of the down-tempo "Calculating Bimbo" suggests an aging to which they'd previously seemed immune. Then you realize how well the words suit the melody and that the melody itself speaks poignant volumes. As for the up-tempo songs, which still predominate, they'll have you humming along as willingly, if not as quickly, as the up-tempo tunes of yore.
The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) leftward drift of certain veteran CCM acts makes one fear that the whole-hearted commitment to being led by the Holy Spirit expressed in these songs might really be code for the potential open-endedness of the "emerging church." Nevertheless, something in the anthemic sweep of the melodies, the meticulous enthusiasm of the playing and the singing, and the deference to authority implicit in the occasional scriptural allusions-and their not renaming themselves Feet of Clay-casts out most such fears.
It's not just that Queen's Brian May produced this album or that Ellis sang in the Queen stage musical We Will Rock You that makes Anthems seem like more of a Queen album than the recordings May and Roger Taylor made with Paul Rodgers: The material itself, from its tendency toward grandiose exotica to its susceptibility to camp sentimentalism, sounds like just the thing Freddie Mercury would be sinking his overbite into were he still among us. And, believe it or not, Ellis has a better voice.
Watson rushes in where honky-tonk angels fear to tread, writing and singing one anachronistic jukebox classic after another as if neither Garth Brooks nor urban cowboys had shaken the traditionalist dust off their spurs. And he keeps getting better. The only problem with Carryin' On is one of quantity: No self-respecting keeper of the traditionalist flame would insist on 13 tracks and 40-plus minutes when 10 and under-30 would do. But with quality as high as "How to Break Your Own Heart," the overload is easy to forgive.
More so than any of the five albums from which it was culled, The Beautiful Damage Collection (Courgette) proves not only that the semi-confessional one-woman, one-piano tradition traceable to Carole King's Tapestry is alive and well but also that Judith Owen, the wife of the satirist-actor Harry Shearer, is its heiress most apparent.
Like King, Owen is not above covering a classic or two ("Cry Me a River," "Smoke on the Water"). Like King only more so, Owen is no respecter of genres, freely drifting from lounge jazz ("Cool Life") and European euphoria ("Conway Bay") to unabashed tribute ("Nicholas Drake") and baroque ("When I Am Laid [Dido's Lament by Henry Purcell]") as if freedom were just another word for nothing left to lose. In another word, when Owen sings "I'm an ordinary girl with ordinary needs" at the outset of "That Scares Me," she both tells the truth and redefines "ordinary" upward as only someone with an "ordinary" voice can.