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New CDs from Springsteen, Rascal Flatts

PJ Harvey, John Fogerty, Matchbox Twenty also release new albums
/ Source: Billboard

Bruce Springsteen, “Magic”
Somewhere between “The River” and “The Rising” falls “Magic,” Bruce Springsteen’s first rock record since 2002 and a sleek machine that’s practically pleading to be taken out on the highway.

Fully resettled on E Street after two solo projects, Springsteen has injected the taut “Magic” with a fierce purpose you can almost taste. The first eight songs play like a joyous E Street history lesson: “Radio Nowhere” is an arena-ready call to arms, the winking “Livin’ in the Future” hails from the “Hungry Heart” school of Clarence Clemons-powered Motown-rock, and “Gypsy Biker” is a wide-open epic-in-waiting about, well, roads. Yet there is more to “Magic” than meets the eye: “Livin’ in the Future” and “Long Walk Home” drop in some sneaky politics, while “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” finds Springsteen indulging an inner “Pet Sounds,” purposefully trying on different vocal styles and keys. In all, a pretty great return to form.

Rascal Flatts, “Still Feels Good”The I-want-to-get-to-know-you first single “Take Me There” is vintage Rascal Flatts, but the band also takes some convincing new detours on “Still Feels Good.” “Winner at a Losing Game” is fresh, familiar and conjures ’70s country rock, while actor/singer Jamie Foxx’s duet with Flatts’ Gary LeVox on the soulful “She Goes All the Way” is a marvelous intertwining and a potential Grammy Award moment. “Bob That Head,” a country-meets-rock-meets-rap tune, is likely to become a Friday night cruising favorite; that’s exactly what the song is about. But this tremendous album also has its tender moments. “Better Now” is a vulnerable look at mistakes made, while “Help Me Remember” yearns for the better times in a relationship, and “It’s Not Supposed to Go Like That” is a classic country tale of lives that end too soon.

PJ Harvey, “White Chalk”PJ Harvey unstraps her guitar, sits down at a piano and completely reinvents her sound, creating a quiet masterpiece in the process. Seven proper albums into her career, she confronts less directly many of the themes that have defined her work — sex, love, betrayal — and instead focuses on what’s left after all the damage has been done: an “empty” and “insignificant” life. This is no warm nostalgia trip down memory lane, but rather an offering to those the narrator has lost, either literally or figuratively, so she may ask “forgiveness.” Essentially one long suicide note, the concept likely would have failed in less accomplished hands. But Harvey’s mostly bare arrangements, stark vocal delivery and razor-sharp lyrics add up to a poignant, haunting rumination on what makes — and breaks — a life.

John Fogerty, “Revival”From the broad, hopeful tone of opener “Don’t You Wish It Was True” to the brisk closer “Longshot,” John Fogerty at 62 has made his toughest, best-written album since Creedence Clearwater Revival disbanded in 1972. Hell having frozen over, he’s back on the Fantasy label after more than 30 years of litigation and torment. On the raving Little Richard-style “I Can’t Take It No More,” he addresses George W. Bush directly (“You lied about the WMDs”) and witheringly reduces the president to “another fortunate son.” The message would mean nothing without the serious heft of the music; Fogerty’s guitar playing has rarely been as blistering as on the rockabilly “It Ain’t Right” or the Cream/Hendrix tribute “Summer of Love.” He pays tribute to his original band on “Creedence Song,” a toast to the sound that fed a thousand bar bands.

Matchbox Twenty, “Exile on Mainstream”The six new songs on Matchbox Twenty’s first greatest hits collection almost sound like a new band. The frenetic drums that kick off first single “How Far We’ve Come,” the jangly folk of “I’ll Believe You When,” the doo-wop balladry of “Can’t Let You Go” diverge from the usual Rob Thomas-singing-full-voice-over-guitar-bursts formula that has brought the band its decade of success. That’s not a bad thing: “How Far” is great stuff, a personal narrative about apocalypse with a sunny “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”-type hook that shows new depth in its irony alone. That’s not to say that the remastered hits are undeserving: Songs like “3 AM,” “If You’re Gone” and “Unwell” are part of the American radio rock canon. If Matchbox starts diversifying now, it will only get more interesting.

Habib Koite, “Afriki”It has been six years since Malian singer-songwriter Habib Koite released the album “Baro,” but it’s doubtful that any of his fans have forgotten him. This masterpiece of West African music will reward their loyalty. Incorporating such traditional Malian instruments as the balafon and sokou, Koite contemplates his country, his past and Africa. He offers a lovely tribute to his late mother on “N’ba” and reaches out to Malian regional styles on “Nteri” and “Namania,” adroitly blending traditional elements with his rock-influenced sound. “Africa,” with a horn arrangement by James Brown vet Pee Wee Ellis, is an incisive view of the continent’s past and a prophecy that Africa will find its own way.