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Discs: Willie Nile, Z Z Top and Jamie Cullum


Willie Nile

American Ride

[Loud & Proud]

4 stars

“It’s a ride, alright. One of the great guides to the mystery that is America.”

So reads the quote from U2’s Bono that graces a sticker attached to the cover of Willie Nile’s just-released “American Ride.” Yup, the Buffalo-born and raised Nile has some pretty famous fans.

“American Ride” captures the full-frontal assault that is Nile’s current live band in all its glory. Guitarist Matt Hogan, bassist Johnny Pisano and drummer Alex Alexander help Nile transform his often power pop-tinged roots rockers into transcendent testaments to the glory days of rock ’n’ roll radio. Producer Stewart Jerman keeps the guitars loud, Nile’s vocal front and center, and the relentless propulsion of the rhythm section deep down in the low end.

But Nile is a singer-songwriter at heart, and much of “American Ride’s” strength comes from the fact that these are among his most incisive melodies and astute lyrics. The title tune, co-written with the Alarm’s Mike Peters, offers a rousing sing-along chorus and follows a rollicking, Dylan-esque pattern of lengthy, accumulative verses. It’s an Americana mini-epic. “This Is Our Time” boasts an arena-friendly chorus and a vocal melody that will appeal to Waterboys fans, as well as lyrical imagery redolent of Woody Guthrie.

One of Nile’s greatest gifts is his ability to take world-weary observations of life’s trials and travails and marry them to uplifting melodies and life-affirming arrangements. Even when the song’s narrator has been dealt some serious blows, when the band kicks in and the chorus comes cranking out of the speakers, it sounds like a party, not a funeral. Thus, “Holy War,” an angry song, is delivered like a defiant, life-affirming anthem, and works perfectly on an album that also includes a red-hot, rapid-fire interpretation of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”

With “American Ride,” Nile continues the streak of irrepressible and irresistible albums that kicked off with 2004’s “Beautiful Wreck of the World.” It may well be, as Relix magazine has suggested, “the strongest material he’s ever recorded.” For everyone who longs for the days when three chords and a killer chorus were the recipe for great rock ’n’ roll, “American Ride” will feel like a gift.

– Jeff Miers


Jamie Cullum


[Island Records]

2½ stars

The first single off Jamie Cullum’s “Momentum,” “Everything You Didn’t Do,” assaults the listener with cringe-worthy glockenspiel, a hummable but derivative pop hook, simple piano chords and exhausted rhythms in the “tiptoeing elephants” style that one might hear at any middle school recital. The full album isn’t quite that bad.

Cullum’s killer jazz solos are here, reminding us that he is still – though he seems to regularly forget this – a consummate jazz pianist. But these solos often feel too short, and this has broader implications for the album as a whole: There simply isn’t enough swing.

“Sad, Sad World” is like the depressing adolescent stepbrother of his earlier (and beautiful) “If I Ruled The World.” On “Take Me Out (Of Myself),” Cullum sings, “So you and me should go and get so high tonight” – and indeed, after hearing the song, one would love to hit the nearest opium den and forget that the whole thing happened. The songs on “Momentum” make the listener want, desperately, to sing along. But this time, we can’t. We remember too well.

Not all is milquetoast pop. “Pure Imagination” is the shining standout, especially after so much heavy pop pipe-laying, an intimate and heartfelt rendering of “Willy Wonka’s” classic. The listener gets the feeling that Cullum tried this song out first – a cappella, probably – on his two daughters. Yes, there is a glorious jazz-inflected piano solo; and yes, Cullum (finally) takes his time.

In “The Pursuit” Cullum was really on to something; in “Momentum” he sounds like he’s losing steam. But the album is not entirely forgettable. Fans will return to it – and to Cullum’s BBC radio show, syndicated by Toronto’s 91.1 FM – for a reminder that he is a distinctive and original artist. That’s the bittersweet beauty of this album. Aside from the turn-up-your-car-stereo-and-sing-in-a-traffic-jam cut “Pure Imagination,” it leaves the listener thinking back on better days – and maybe, on better ones to come.

– Aidan Ryan


ZZ Top

The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1990)

[Warner Brothers, 10 discs]

4 stars

Well, all right, so they didn’t exactly set Bonaroo on fire, according to Rolling Stone. This, to be sure, is a cornerstone of American rock music, Stampeding Longhorn Blues Division.

So what if they got together in Houston in 1960? So what if Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard and Dusty Hill are still “the same three guys playing the same three chords” (as they sometimes like to say in their self-deprecating mantra)? Their runaway Texas blues are really kissing cousins of elemental Great Lakes rock in the genealogy of blues-based American vernacular music, and everyone’s always known it.

That means “Rio Grande Mud,” “Tres Hombres,” “Fandango,” “Tejas,” “Deguello,” “El Loco,” “Eliminator” and “Afterburner,” too. That also means that within its 100 tracks you’ve got “Tush” (the funniest unintentional mispronunciation in the history of American pop culture), “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Legs,” “Sharp-Dressed Man,” “Sleeping Bag” and, oh yes, in case you could possibly forget their direct musical bloodlines, Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” (from “El Loco”). Among the more idiot follies of pop culture groupthink in the post-1960s music nerd era is the once-widespread notion that ZZ Top’s undeniable monolithic stature as monster purveyors of roadhouse bar blues was besmirched by all the synthesizer additives and sonic lubrication of their recording lives when their records began to sell by the trainload. It was as if they’d suddenly come down with its era’s equivalent of Bieber fever and were morphing in front of everyone’s ears into the funkiest and hairiest boy band in history.

Hardly. They didn’t “sell out” as much as they did indeed change (and the whole metamorphosis is here). They just went nationwide. They became a kind of cultural tentpole. And here, on the original 10 records, is how the stampede happened – and along with it, why nothing on earth could have stopped it.

– Jeff Simon