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Modest Mouse, Patty Griffin, Van Hunt, Todd Rundgren, Prince
Revisiting the same old questions
by Mark Anderson

he funeral of a widely beloved man caused a dear friend to examine her own life. "Do I want to be remembered for a nice-looking lawn," she asked, "or connecting with people?"

Asking the same old questions: Do money and stuff really matter? Where does art fit in? And what about the yard?

As the world continues down a dangerous path, many of the same old questions increasingly apply. Are money and stuff what matter? Or is it really about making amigos and sharing ideas? Do difficult times increase the urge to deepen existing friendships? What of speaking out about strong convictions? And where does art fit in?

On that last count, nothing soothes, sustains or inspires the inner savage like music, especially when the songs provide heat and light. With that in mind – along with the ongoing notion that albums with more than a song or two worth recommending are exceedingly rare – 2004 has seen noteworthy releases from Modest Mouse, Patty Griffin, Van Hunt and Todd Rundgren.

Modest Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News is, well, good news.

Modest Mouse, an eclectic Seattle-area band, begins its second decade with Good News For People Who Love Bad News – an ambitious recording that evokes Tom Waits and XTC, yet still sounds unique.

Uniqueness alone, of course, offers no guarantees. But the band's unconventional songs are all over the map as well as oddly engaging: edgy rock, ear-pleasing folk, gentle ballads, slippery funk.

"The Devil's Work Day" has a sinister, horn-driven vibe that sounds closer to the turn of the 19th than 20th century, while "Blame it on the Tetons" exudes light, melodic folk. And "Bury Me With It," with jagged guitars, manic singing and an off-kilter beat, is probably the best and brashest moment of an album where topics tend toward the darker hues of self-examination.

But "The Good Times are Killing Me," a lively ballad comparing the virtues of a good night's sleep to yet another swipe at the high life, ends the satisfying 16-song disc on an unexpected uptick.

Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream: world-wise words and fresh melodies, 11 songs strong.

Patty Griffin's latest is satisfying, too. Griffin sings like a street-smart angel, plays piano and guitars, and is capable of rocking out (her 1998 release, Flaming Red, provides vivid proof).

But perhaps Griffin's greatest gift is for finding fresh melodies to go with world-wise words. Impossible Dream is mostly a soft, unhurried affair, yet powerful, pleasing and 11 songs strong.

"Something as simple as boys and girls ... gets tossed all around and lost in the world," Griffin sings in "Mother of God," a beautiful piano-based lullaby with a somber core.

The song extends beyond seven minutes as haunting fiddles join the spare, hypnotic swirl. "Maybe love is waiting at the end of every road," she sings. "I don't know, I don't know ..."

But the album is no downer. There's a disc-opening up-tempo blues ("Love Throws a Line"), a quaint family recording ("The Impossible Dream"), a sublime tuba solo ("Icicles"), and violin by Lisa Germano throughout, as Griffin adds another remarkable recording to her string of four prior gems.

Van Hunt's Van Hunt: A soul-singing throwback and not a moment too soon.

Van Hunt's self-titled debut introduces a melodic, soul-singing throwback and not a moment too soon. Hunt, a songwriting guitarist, croons true-to-life storylines in the best Motown tradition, alternating between emotive ballads and bubbling bass lines with danceable beats. He seems to have tapped into an old-school back-to-the-'60s time capsule that avoids sounding dated and doesn't disappoint.

The upbeat "Highlights" actually is the highlight, making use of sly Hollywood metaphors to skewer a self-absorbed lover. "Only thing you've ever wanted to be was a movie star," he begins. "Only role you've ever wanted to play is the person you are, are, are."

The album, as also noted in the Portland Mercury last month, is a very convincing front-to-back effort. "All I know," deduced the cheeky local weekly's review, "is if Norah Jones can become famous, Van Hunt will make you crap your pants."

Todd Rundgren's Liars: worth the effort for anyone who's ever dug Todd.

Meanwhile, Todd Rundgren, a rock 'n' roll iconoclast on the far side of 50, has come up with an accessible collection of keyboard-based songs revolving loosely around a theme of lies and the lying liars who tell them. Could a topic be more timely?

The aptly titled Liars melds Rundgren's diverse material and one-man-band approach with his reedy, iconic voice – which shines like a familiar, radiant beacon.

"Baby, we could live so happily, the envy of them all," he sings in "Flaw," a mid-tempo soul song depicting a doomed romance. "But that'll never happen, 'cause you've got one fatal flaw."

Rundgren holds back any explanation until a few verses and several minutes go by. Then he reveals the punch line as an ongoing refrain: "So why d'ya gotta be such a lyin'-ass motherfucker?"

Over the course of 14 songs, Rundgren evinces soul, of course, but also traverses rock, pop, ballads, blues and electronica with equal aplomb. If the disc has a flaw, it's that an hour-plus of electro-Todd can begin to sound a bit mechanical. But at the very least, Liars is time well spent for anyone who's ever dug Todd Rundgren. And, honestly, it's an album most anyone might like.

Prince's Musicology: The new album just isn't good enough.

OK, here comes the moment where I can't believe what I'm about to say.

Prince has given this writer more musical pleasure than anybody short of Miles Davis and the Beatles. I was born in '58 and spent my formative years in Minnesota – just like Prince. Since 1982, I've seen his show countless times.

He was great on the recent Hall of Fame broadcast and I wish I'd seen him on this year's Grammys, while his spot on Ellen's daytime talk show was reportedly must-see TV. I've paid 50 bucks apiece for bootlegs and own a videotape of Prince hosting the Muppets, along with copies of all his movies.

No doubt an onrush of positive press helped Prince's latest, Musicology, sell nearly 200,000 units in its first week. (One theory is that the fawning critical tone was set in motion by Rolling Stone's pre-release rave review – an effort to make up for the magazine leaving Prince off its recent list of all-time great guitarists.)

But although it's easy to read otherwise elsewhere, Musicology provides few pleasures and little – if anything – that Prince hasn't done before, only better. The title song is reasonably funky fun. "Call My Name" and "Dear Mr. Man" combine heady lyrics with decent melodies and instrumental grit. But that's it. The radio-ready "Cinnamon Girl" and all the rest are pale replicas of days gone by.

If Prince ever reads this (yeah, right), I'd like to think he'll be grateful. He is, after all, a genius, a peerless performer and likely has many great songs left to write. And as he said in his eloquent Hall of Fame acceptance speech, "... a real friend or mentor is not on your payroll; a real friend and mentor cares for your soul as much as they do their own ..."

So here goes: Prince, Musicology just ain't good enough.

Whew. That wasn't easy. But little seems easy as we head for the heart of the '00s – amid many of the same old questions.

Can we elect good leaders? Is the planet overheating? Overcrowding? Running out of crude? Will we stop killing each other? Who'll be marrying whom? What about food, jobs, health care, civil liberties, the environment, abortion, AIDS and WMDs? Are rich people playing us all for fools?

In fact, the questions get bigger and the answers seem harder and harder to find. But maybe that's exactly why there are songs, and why it feels so good whenever the music hits the spot.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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