‘Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends’

‘Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends’

Coldplay (Capitol Records)

Grade: A

Coldplay’s hit-making formula has served the band well: Thoughtful, midtempo songs driven by pleasant melodic hooks delivered by frontman Chris Martin’s blend of sublime and soaring vocals.

And the British quartet doesn’t stray too far in its latest effort, “Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends.”

Despite the band’s decision to embrace experimentation and shake things up, “Viva La Vida ...” sounds more like the result of a brief, quirky musical detour than a huge departure from what Coldplay delivered in its previous three studio albums.

That’s bound to please longtime fans who relish Coldplay’s signature sound, but could underwhelm those who may have been looking for Martin and Co. to follow up 2005’s “X&Y” with a more substantial surprising, musical journey.

Still, a few tracks off “Viva La Vida ...” are formidable additions to the band’s oeuvre, including the shimmering “Cemeteries Of London,” the anthemic “Lovers In Japan,” and the sweet pop of “Strawberry Swing.”

Martin and his cohorts — bassist Guy Berryman, lead guitarist Jonny Buckland and drummer Will Champion — infused “Viva La Vida ...” with a mix of introspective ballads and midtempo rockers exploring themes of religion, loss and love.

The album opens with an upbeat instrumental that feels like it’s building to a grand climax, but just ends. Things pick up gradually from that point on, as Martin croons over light synth and piano on “Cemeteries Of London.”

In “Lost,” Coldplay marries rhythms driven by handclaps, drums and tablas with a backdrop from a church organ.

The track “Viva La Vida” showcases perhaps Martin’s best lyrical work on the album. The track, at once layered and pulsing with strings, combines urgency with built-for-sing-along refrains including: “For some reason I can’t explain/I know St. Peter won’t call my name/Never an honest word/But that was when I ruled the world.”

— Alex Veiga, Associated Press

‘Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace’

The Offspring (Columbia)

Grade: B

You expect a band to show some twists when it returns from a four-year absence, and in its first album since 2003, the Offspring obliges. “Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace” has plenty of brisk, sharp rock, both punk and beyond, but there are also atmospheric interludes and moments of folkish, emolike reflection.

The veteran Southern California band also has a new producer, Bob Rock, who has moved over from the Metallica account and so might be held responsible for the ominous, metal-tinged ballad “A Lot Like Me.”

Of course, the Offspring has never stayed snugly in the punk cubicle it initially was assigned. Such hits as “Come Out and Play,” “Self Esteem” and “Pretty Fly [For a White Guy]” bristled with hooks and twitches and dynamics foreign to the punk playbook, and the band’s knack for the catchy resulted in refrains that stuck like schoolyard taunts and lifted like stadium chants.

“Rise and Fall” works best when it emphasizes those features. “Let’s Hear It for Rock Bottom,” “Stuff Is Messed Up,” “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” and “Nothingtown” are the prime vehicles for the Offspring’s engaging dynamism, while the band (joined again by guest drummer Josh Freese) is flashing an increasing pop-anthem quality that brings it close to Cheap Trick’s hallowed ground.

“Hammerhead,” in which images of a soldier’s battlefield maneuvers bleed into a scenario of a campus shooting spree, is the strongest lyric on an album that gives more time than usual to personal introspection. There are also expressions of frustration and discontent in the tradition of the Offspring’s legacy of well-observed social commentary, but the absence of its satirical, semi-novelty edge leaves things a little sober.

The album tends to sag in the middle, and as for those gentler moments, well, one for two isn’t bad (“Kristi, Are You Doing Okay?” is OK). The Offspring has earned the chance to stretch, but when it comes to this band and sentimental soft-rock, you gotta keep ’em separated.

— Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times

‘Flavors of Entanglement’

Alanis Morissette (Maverick)

Grade: D

It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since the nattering whine of Alanis Morissette’s mega-selling “Jagged Little Pill”; that is, until you consider the vacuous ’90s to be the best of all decades in which to be bitterly self-absorbed and that the times haven’t changed. We’re lucky, then, that — to an extent — Morissette has moved away from the yodeling of yore and that music’s angry stammer into something more supple: loops, bloops, an electro-tabla groove prevalent since “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie,” a warmer set of pipes. Though she drives over some of Flavors’ casual techno curves and industrial buzzes with ease (the cool “Moratorium”), Morissette takes herself too mawkishly seriously as a lyricist and sonic landscaper. The chipper dance-pop of “Giggling Again for No Reason” is terrible. The strangled “Straitjacket” is tripe. Her dedication to hitting rock bottom comes across like dated Naomi Wolf babble.

— A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Seeing Sounds’

N*E*R*D (Interscope)

Grade: C

Pharrell Williams does a lot of things: He sings, he raps, he rocks, he rolls. For the last decade he’s made contagious, ridiculous-sounding beats as one half of the Neptunes. With his three-piece funk band, N*E*R*D, Pharrell can stretch these ideas into bigger, weirder compositions. The subtle implication is that if you thought Jay-Z or Ludacris or Justin Timberlake was having fun on a Neptunes track, wait till you hear Pharrell in all his falsetto glory, singing about spaceships, free of Earth’s (and pop music’s) conventional wisdoms.

“Seeing Sounds” is N*E*R*D’s third album, and the loosest and most adventurous yet. “Sooner or Later” and “Love Bomb” are ELO-style ballads; the guitar riff in “Windows” is pretty close to that in Bloc Party’s “Helicopter”; the refrain in “Happy” is Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin’.” (Forgive the name-dropping, but N*E*R*D gets very specific about influences.)

— Michael Pollock, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Circus Money’

Walter Becker (Over 12/Mailboat)

Grade: B

Walter Becker won’t win awards for productivity. “Circus Money” is only his second solo effort in 14 years and his parent group, Steely Dan, has only issued two studio albums since 1980.

But maybe Becker’s music is like fine wine, it just needs time to age. “Circus Money” is vintage late-period Steely Dan. Though he’s working with producer Larry Klein (who is coming off an Album of the Year Grammy win for producing Herbie Hancock) instead of longtime Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen, Becker captures the precise sophistication — and audiophile finesse — of Steely Dan albums like “Gaucho.” But, inspired by reggae and Jamaican dub rhythms, Becker gives his rhythm section a different kind of workout.

Becker’s character sketches also remain quirky and oddly compelling. There’s Betsy Button on “Door Number Two,” who feeds the Vegas slots with her paper cup of nickels in vain. “She needs three bars, three cherries, three lemons, three pigs, a date with Elvis, a new car,” Becker sings.

On “Downtown Canon” two jaded Los Angelenos — one “a half-crazed painter fool in some damn bar” — fuel their “cocaine dreams and Chiba-Chiba nights” by “chasing sensations to remind us who we are.” Becker, who abdicates the lead vocal spot in Steely Dan to Fagan, does a fine job reflecting loss in “Paging Audrey.”

Steely Dan fans are going to love playing this “Circus” “Money.”

— Howard Cohen, Miami Herald

‘Back When I Knew It All’

Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

Grade: B

Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry have always been about rocking up country, and on their new album the dependable duo presents more surefire, get-this-party-started crowd-pleasers like “Now You’re Talkin”’ and “One in Every Crowd.”

As with the title song, however, “Back When I Knew It All” also has a reflective bent, with songs that offer down-home wisdom

— Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘All I Intended to Be’

Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch)

Grade: C

Any individual song on Emmylou Harris’ first studio CD in five years — which also marks a reunion with her ex-husband and producer Brian Ahern — would be a gem on any one of her albums.

Best is the lovely “Shores of White Sand,” a sad but ultimately hopeful dedication to Doobie Brother drummer Keith Knudsen, who died of pneumonia in 2005. “Some say I’m sinking to the muddy bottom / But somehow I’m sailing to shores of white sand,” Harris sings in her distinctive nasal tone.

“Gone,” with harmonies from long-time collaborator Dolly Parton, is nice, too, and her faithful cover of Tracy Chapman’s evocative “All That You Have Is Your Soul” is worth a listen if you don’t have Chapman’s 1989 original.

But, as on nearly all of her albums, the unrelenting downbeat tempos and Harris’ unwavering, depressed delivery becomes overwhelmingly monotonous over the course of a 13-track CD.

— Howard Cohen, The Miami Herald

‘The Devil, You Me’

The Notwist (Domino)

Grade: A-

As long-time-in-coming, mellowed-out Euro electronica albums go, Portishead got all the hype. But let’s not forget the Notwist, the Bavarian outfit who shed their metallic skin and revealed a chilled-out ambient soul on 2002’s “Neon Golden,” and have hardly been heard from since — except for side projects such as the knotty 13 & God. “The Devil, You & Me” doesn’t immediately reveal itself to have anything quite so divine as “Neon”’s “Pick up the Phone.” But it shows Markus Archer and crew to still be masters at creating glitchy, gently melodic music of fragile beauty that communicates just enough of an undercurrent of 21st century anxiety to keep songs such as “Good Lies” and “Where in the World” from being merely soothing.

— Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Don’t Do Anything’

Sam Phillips (Nonesuch)

Grade: B

After an early career as Leslie Phillips, Christian artist, Sam Phillips reinvented herself as a purveyor of baroque singer-songwriter pop. Then she did so again, creating a sophisticated and impressive blend of torch song, cabaret, gypsy blues and earthy balladry that resides somewhere near Tom Waits’ neighborhood. Like 2001’s “Fan Dance” and 2004’s “A Boot and a Shoe,” “Don’t Do Anything” is terse and pointed, beautiful and clattering, fragile and forthright.

Unlike those last albums, which were produced by her former husband, T-Bone Burnett, Phillips helmed this one herself. It is largely a louder and darker affair, with more electric guitars and noisier diversions, and it’s slightly less subtle. But from the wishful “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” — her tribute to Rosetta Tharpe, which Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recently covered — to the rocking “My Career in Chemistry,” Phillips’ introspective alto voice still sounds wistful and disillusioned, and captivating.

— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer

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