- - Monday, September 17, 2012

Battle Born

The Killers

Island

★★

The Killers are from Las Vegas, and they’ve never sounded so indebted to their hometown as they do on “Battle Born.” These songs are about rolling the dice, about risking everything, about striking out for the open road with your lover in the front seat and your dull, small-town life fading in the rearview mirror. If this sounds like Bruce Springsteen, it’s because the specter of the Boss looms over this album like the Palazzo, casting a shadow over everything in its path.

Album cover for Ben Folds Five "The Sound of the Life of the Mind".
Album cover for Ben Folds Five “The Sound of the Life of ... more >

The Boss never sounded this slick, though. Each chest-swelling melody and arena-rock hook on “Battle Born” is polished to a shiny glow, every rough edge sanded away, all the blemishes buffed until they’re smooth and immaculate. Even when frontman Brandon Flowers sings about star-spangled hearts, eager eyes and blond hair blowing in the summer wind, he only highlights the gap between his own band and the E Street Band, who wisely left some imperfection in their own rock ‘n’ roll anthems.

The lead single is “Runaways,” a four-minute tribute to nostalgia and teenage love. It’s powerful stuff, especially when the song slams into its first pre-chorus like a mack truck, full of bombastic power chords and soaring synthesizers. Cliches litter every other measure like land mines, but when a song is this monumental, it’s easy to overlook those flaws.

“Battle Born” can’t sustain that sort of energy, though. Whenever the breakneck pace gives way to soupy ballads, the guys sound less like a second-rate Boss and more like a third-tier Meat Loaf, their rock songs replaced by something better suited to a Broadway rock musical. Like Las Vegas, the Killers shine brightly but sometimes, the sparkle is only surface deep.

The Sound of the Life of the Mind

Ben Folds Five

ImaVeePee Records

★★★

Ben Folds Five’s first album in thirteen years picks up where 1999’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” left off, pitting the band’s pop melodies against a backdrop of jazz, rock and quirky lounge music.

It’s a snarky sound, musically complex at points and humorously dashed-off at others. Ben Folds is the obvious frontman, his everyman voice and nimble piano playing pushed to the forefront of every song, but drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge make themselves known. The harmonies are stacked three voices deep, and Mr. Sledge plays his bass like a lead guitar, moving between deep, rumbling root notes and buzzing solos.

The sound hasn’t really evolved, but after a decade-plus absence, a little consistency is welcome. “Sky High” and “Hold That Thought” are midtempo pop songs geared toward rainy days, the latter tune capped by a gorgeous outro and falsetto vocals, while “Erase Me” and “Draw a Crowd” are half-serious rock tunes, proof that these jokesters haven’t mellowed too much with age.

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