Witness five artists — Eddie Vedder, Death Cab for Cutie, My Morning Jacket, Flogging Molly, and Andrea Corr — stare down the midlife of their musical careers, armed with ukuleles, epic productions, and carefully chosen cover songs. Take a listen, and decide for yourself which ones to play and which ones to skip.
PLAY: Eddie Vedder, "Ukulele Songs"
The first time I heard the ukulele was in the hands of Pete Townshend, whose "Blue, Red and Grey" was the emotional (and solo) centerpiece of the Who's 1975 release "The Who by Numbers." Fellow Townshend devotee Eddie Vedder undoubtedly was moved as well (check out his live take on the tune). It takes a certain kind of musician to hold a ukulele and not turn into a Tiny Tim joke. Vedder's "Ukulele Songs" has little to do with Hawaiian culture (although part of the album was recorded in Oahu) or kitschy musical irony. Like Townshend, Vedder uses the ukulele to cut through the noise and get straight to the heart of the matter. At 16 songs and 35 minutes, "Ukulele Songs" plays like an introspective Sunday afternoon in the garden with only your voice and arpeggios to keep you company.
PLAY: Death Cab for Cutie, "Codes and Keys"
It's hard to think of Death Cab for Cutie as music industry, major label veterans, but alas, here we are. Seven albums, 14 years, and countless prime-time TV show song placements later, Death Cab now belongs to the mainstream as much as those heady indie rock cynics who were the first to bow at Ben Gibbard's feet back in the late '90s. "Codes and Keys" is the sound of a band crossing over on their own terms. Gibbard's voice is as full as ever of heartbroken wonder. Guitarist Chris Walla's production is urgent and explores sonic terrain beyond Death Cab's usual six-string wizardry. Just as with Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs," "Codes and Keys" offers Top 10 salvation from a musical landfill packed with manufactured, plastic pop. Get ready for next year's Grammy upset.
PLAY: My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"
More than any other group, My Morning Jacket has the talent, vision, and balls to bring jam bands into the 21st century. Not content with just regurgitating 16-minute blues progressions, My Morning Jacket embraces experimentation with a musicality that's infinitely more convincing than that of their contemporaries, who lack the songwriting chops to make it work. And that's really My Morning Jacket's advantage. Whereas most jam bands put the emphasis on playing and regard songwriting and recording as a chore, MMJ realize that the jams are sweeter when the songs are solid.
Listen to "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," and you'll get the idea. It's a song that could have been written by the Brill Building greats and performed by Jerry Garcia. Or "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which sounds like the theme to a lost '60s James Bond film. "Circuital" is an album by a bunch of dudes who love songwriting, record-making, and playing — all with equal fervor and mastery.
PLAY: Flogging Molly, "Speed of Darkness"
Flogging Molly has been carrying the Celtic punk flag since their humble beginnings playing L.A. Irish pubs. Their formula has gone largely unchanged over 14 years. They play with equal parts speed, twang, and 4/4 rage. Flogging Molly's fiddles, banjos, and accordions make them a bit gentler than Boston Celtic counterparts Dropkick Murphys, but make no mistake, "Speed of Darkness" is filled with just as much venom. And after a surprisingly scant four studio albums, this release raises the sonic bar. Pour a pint and play it until the neighbors complain about the slam dancing above their heads.
SKIP: Andrea Corr, "Lifelines"
At some point in most musical careers — usually the middle doldrums or shipwrecked end — an artist will release an album of cover songs. The covers album is meant to establish cred by associating a singer with some heavyweight songwriters. If the singer is lucky, one of the cover songs will replace the original in listeners' minds, thus giving our shipwrecked singer a life raft to career rehabilitation (and possibly some motivation to write some new songs). Such is the case with former Corrs front-woman, Andrea Corr. After her 2007 debut bombed, Andrea put down the pen and went through her record collection. It's impressive, filled with music from the Velvet Underground, Harry Nilsson, Nick Drake, and other critic-proof choices. Still, despite the tasteful arrangements from producers John Reynolds and Brian Eno, there's nothing to keep anyone from the originals. Don't know 'em? Pick them up. They'll amaze you more than these earnest but forgettable versions will.