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Faith Hill’s latest is pure fun

It’s been four years since she crossed over with her hit ‘Breathe’
/ Source: The Associated Press

This week is nothing if not eclectic. Faith Hill chooses to just have fun instead of cranking out formulaic hits with her latest, “Fireflies.” Tristan Prettyman provides some unpretentious, sweet tunes to accompany your next trip to the beach. Animal Liberation Orchestra serves up some funk-infused music that will have you dancing around your living room on their latest CD. Finally, check out the Swedish psych rock of Dungen.

Faith Hill, “Fireflies”It’s easy to understand why Faith Hill took her time before releasing her new record, “Fireflies.”

After all, how do you follow the successes of “Breathe,” her crossover mega-hit from 2001, and “Cry,” which won a best female vocal Grammy in 2003? Apparently, Hill’s answer is to be patient and understated.

Two years in the making, “Fireflies” tones down Hill’s trademark bombast, relying instead on laid-back grooves, subdued vocals (comparatively speaking) and state-of-the-art Nashville songwriting. As with Kenny Chesney’s latest, the Caribbean-tinged “Be As You Are,” this muted approach shouldn’t be mistaken as a return to country roots. In fact, the record is Hill’s most eclectic to date.

“Sunshine & Summertime,” for example, is a beach party anthem that combines banjos with timbales and smooth, Latin-infused rhythms. When she does revert to more country-ish material, as with the ode to bad marriage “Dearly Beloved,” Hill’s newfound restraint helps sell lines like “I’d like to welcome y’all/ To the side-effects of sex and alcohol,” which would otherwise just sound corny.

Despite the handwringing that probably went into “Fireflies” — questions like, “Is there a hit? Does is have crossover potential?” for example — it’s evident that at this point in her career, Hill is having fun, and that appeals to radio programmers just as well as jaded music critics.—Paul V. Griffith

Tristan Prettyman, “Twentythree”

There’s a bumpersticker common in San Diego, usually found on cars with surfboards strapped to the top, that reads: “No bad days.”

It’s an attitude that surfers will tell you comes from being in the water, out past the breakers, looking at the shore from a distance while waiting for that next wave — then getting completely stoked when you catch it. No need to stress about bills, or tomorrow. Just focus on being in the now.

On her debut album, San Diego surfer and singer Tristan Prettyman rides that sensibility with a mellow joy. This young songwriter and guitar player is smooth in a completely unaffected way. Her vocal timing is a bit quirky, which makes cheery songs like her opening, “Love, love, love,” contagiously endearing. Her duo with Jason Mraz, “Shy that Way,” is softly sexy.

Prettyman’s slightly sandy voice can’t help but be compared to, say, a cross between Sheryl Crow and and a young, upbeat Ricki Lee Jones. Even when tackling weighty subjects, such as chemical dependence in “Song for the Rich,” Prettyman’s optimism seems to survive.

There’s nothing to not like about this album. And how could it be otherwise? This unpretentious 23-year-old sings from her heart and succeeds at coming off as nothing more or less than simply herself.—Michelle Morgante

Animal Liberation Orchestra, “Fly Between Falls”

Oh, to be as witty as Animal Liberation Orchestra, a West Coast funk-infused quartet headed up by keyboardist/vocalist Zach Gill. The band’s new album, “Fly Between Falls,” will have you dancing around the house, bobbing your head and quite possibly reaching for a dusty old college creative writing class primer.

It’s heady stuff.

Born at the University of California, Santa Barbara, ALO expanded to nine-piece and then wisely contracted to the original four founding members. It was a smart move, because their sound is now just right.

The music is technically intense — lots of quick guitar strums, snappy drumming and soaring piano riffs — but any Barenaked Ladies-like geek edges are smoothed over by Gill’s creamy vocals.

The first track, “Barbecue,” is the best, mainly for its peppy, spot-on message about acknowledging the broken dreams in our lives as essential parts of our lives. The band gets into a great groove here.

Other tracks like “Spectrum” come alive with smart songwriting about self-exploration. “Well I can disagree with myself/ ’Cause sometimes I feel like me/ Sometimes I feel like somebody else.”

ALO thankfully keeps the funk groove to an acceptable minimum on most tracks, nicely preventing the boys from becoming a run-of-the-mill jam band. Each member of ALO could easily be the musical star of their own band, so it’s nice to see accomplished musicians like these stick together.

Musically, “Fly Between Falls” has no easy category to fall into. It’s weird and funky and you won’t know where to look for it on the record store shelf.

But it’s definitely worth the search.—Ron Harris

Dungen, “Ta Det Lugnt”The third album from multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes’ Swedish psych-rock band Dungen sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1970s with its vintage arrangements and guitar-fuzz freakouts.

Although originally released by Swedish archival label Subliminal Sounds, the record is not a strict reissue of a lost classic or a straight rehash of an antiquated style. Recorded only last year, it has now been reissued in the U.S. with a bonus disc offering five unreleased songs.

The album tows the line between the almost mythical Swedish underground psych/drone scene of the 1960s-70s (Parson Sound/ Trad, Gras och Stenar/International Harvester) and groups like The Creation, Love or singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren. Written almost entirely by Ejstes, songs range from adventurous full-throttle rockers to Hammond B-3/flute rendezvous, replete with Byrds-y harmonies and nimble fiddle work. Besides Ejstes, who studies traditional Swedish music, the other notable is guitarist Reine Fiske, whose feisty solos soar above the galloping grooves. “Gjort bort sig” is an obvious standout with its colorful guitar lines and commanding drum fills. Slightly more impressive is the title track, which features the album’s catchiest moment: Ejstes’ mellifluous singing of the chorus in Swedish (translating as “Take it easy”).

Both songs are less intense than the towering statement-of-intent opener “Panda.” The bonus tracks are a nice addition, each one fairly similar in tone to the original tracklist. The word Dungen translates as “a cluster of trees in a meadow” and at times the album plays like a lysergic trip through Swedish forests. That all the lyrics are sung completely in Ejstes’ native language doesn’t seem to matter much when the musicianship and songwriting are this stellar. At once an unbridled appreciation of past forms, yet wholly unconcerned with categorization, this is the type of record that in time may wind up garnering the best classification: timeless.—Jake O’Connell