Imogen Heap, Bill Champlin, Dolores O’Riordan and Mew

With my crazy busy schedule, I'm already over my allotted time limit on how long I can spend on this opening, so I'm off to put out a half dozen other fires while you peruse this week's reviewage. The past couple of years have produced an absolute bumper

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My schedule continues to be a tangled mass of intention that resembles an old-time switchboard, with too many wires crossing to connect to every available jack in the hopes of accommodating hundreds of incoming and outgoing calls. And starting Wednesday, my day begins at 5:30 a.m. when I have to roust my daughter to get breakfast into her and point her semi-conscious body toward the bus stop for her first day in the 10th grade.

Typically, my wife takes this shift, then gets herself together to get to work by 8 a.m. while I blissfully drool into my pillow. But with her broken (but healing) shoulder, that won’t be possible for a few weeks. So the guy who usually hauls butt upstairs at 2 a.m. now has to wake up three hours after he generally goes to sleep. This is going to be an interesting few weeks, I can tell you that.

Well, I’m already over my allotted time limit on how long I can spend on this opening, so I’m off to put out a half dozen other fires while you peruse this week’s reviewage. Geez, is that the time or my blood pressure?

The past couple of years have produced an absolute bumper crop of newly minted singing/songwriting women of every stripe, from Pop chanteuses with serious chart aspirations to Rock chicks with chops and bravado. Imogen Heap is not among them. The Briton is no newcomer, collaborating in the group Acacia in 1996, releasing her debut solo album, i Megaphone, in 1998, and her sophomore album, Speak for Yourself seven years later. In between she did time in the duo Frou Frou. And she’s not targeting a demographic to hit with her work; Heap’s songs have been utilized in television, film and commercials and she’s worked with a dazzling array of musical talents, including Jeff Beck, Brian Eno, Josh Groban, Britney Spears, Jon Bon Jovi, Sean Lennon and IAMX, among many others.

On her third solo album, Ellipse, Heap cooks up a Pop stew that is both visceral and ethereal, as evidenced on the album’s lead off track, “First Train Home,” where she crafts a beat-driven hit that recalls the soul of Sarah McLachlan, the spirit of Annie Lennox and Joni Mitchell and the cerebral pulse of Beth Orton. Heap seamlessly blends Pop drive, dance beats and Electronic atmospherics without overstating her case, which may explain why she has a legion of fans and fairly unremarkable sales figures. Lyrically, Heap runs the gamut from deep (“Canvas”) to banal (“Swoon,” “Little Bird”) to tongue in cheek (“Bad Body Double”). But she always has complete conviction for all extremes, giving the giddy sex ode “Between Sheets” and the mournful “Wait It Out” nearly equal weight. While there may not be a breakout track on Ellipse, Imogen Heap has fashioned an impressive set of songs that soars with the best of her work to date.

More than 40 years ago, Bill Champlin was fronting the Sons of Champlin, one of San Francisco‘s hardest working and most beloved bands. Look at any random poster of Fillmore West shows of the era and you’ll likely see the Sons on the lower part of the card. And that wound up being a metaphor for the band’s history — always an opener, rarely a headliner. Although they were adored by their fans and fully capable of captivating the fans of the bigger names above them on the marquee, the Sons of Champlin were never afforded the same historical respect lavished on the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and all the other bands that have come to define that time and that scene, earning berths in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the process.

After Champlin closed the book on the Sons (he has revisited the band in recent years), he embarked on a critically-acclaimed, commercially-ignored solo career. Eventually, Champlin accepted an offer to sing lead vocals for Chicago, but while he was running through their hyperfamiliar catalog of chart hits, he also continued to write his own songs, stockpiling them for an eventual album.

When Champlin finally scored a deal with Dreammaker Music, he had four full CDs of tracks to choose from. The best of the bunch clearly wound up on No Place Left to Fall, Champlin’s first solo album in over a decade. To their credit, Dreammaker allowed Champlin to stretch beyond genre limitations, giving him free rein to explore his songs as classic Rock thumpers (“Total Control”), visceral Blues smokers (“The Truth”), Jazz/Pop workouts (“Never Let Go”), stunning Pop contructions (“Never Been Afraid”), Funk/R&B jams (“I Want You to Stay”) and Gospel tinged hymns for an electric church (“Lookin’ For You”). As a result, No Place Left to Fall is an amazing sonic scrapbook of everything Champlin does best, which is pretty much everything.

SOC and Champlin fans will obviously cartwheel over the album, but this is clearly a set that transcends simple description and could find an audience among nearly every aspect of the AOR/Classic Rock demographic — fans of Chicago, Toto, Delbert McClinton and Boz Scaggs take particular note. The production is sophisticated without being slick, the performances are solid without being overworked and the songs are heartfelt without being sappy. If no one pays a lick of attention to No Place Left to Fall, Bill Champlin can rest assured that he has crafted a classically masterful album that may well redefine what constitutes his best work.

The astonishing global success of the Cranberries in the mid-’90s was both blessing and curse for frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan. The treadmill of constantly attempting to raise the musical bar proved too much for O’Riordan, who stepped away from the band after 2001’s Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. After recharging her batteries with her family in the wilds of Ontario and in her native Ireland, and re-establishing a personal sense of self, O’Riordan felt the time was right to redefine her musical identity apart from the band that facilitated her initial foray into music. On No Baggage, O’Riordan‘s sophomore album and the follow-up to 2007’s Are You Listening?, the vocalist/songwriter takes a page from the Annie Lennox playbook and crafts a stunning Pop album that references the sounds and sensations of her former band — most obviously through the vehicle of her incredibly distinctive voice — while adding new colors to her palette that clearly delineate her solo persona.

No Baggage is an interesting title for the album, perhaps the most introspective and confessional and personal set of songs O’Riordan has yet written. But in another context, No Baggage is also a set of songs that detail the circuitous route we all chart through life, bringing no detritus when we arrive and taking nothing with us when we depart, and hopefully making the most of the dash between our chiseled dates. It’s a message expressed in the moody rocker “The Journey.” There’s little here that wouldn’t make a great Cranberries singles, from the balladic “Stupid” and “Lunatic” to the Pop anthemics of “Be Careful” and “Skeleton.” The difference in No Baggage is that Dolores O’Riordan has created it on her own terms, in her own time and outside of the oppressive success vacuum that surrounded her first, best band.

Mew has never shied away from artful experimentation over the course of their decade and a half history. After their initial pair of releases and a compilation of re-recorded and new songs, the Danish trio hit the critical jackpot with their fourth album, 2006’s And the Glass Handed Kites, which earned them a sweep of the top trophies in that year’s Danish Music Awards. After almost universal acclaim for Kites, an almost universal lingers in its wake: What will Mew do for an encore? The answer, quite simply, is whatever they want.

The trio’s fifth album, officially titled No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away (but for our purposes edited down to No More Stories), is a pastiche of the broad sonic territory that the band has already staked out for themselves. While Mew is clearly not trying to be all things to all people, they embrace the success of their tastefully bombastic sound on No More Stories, from the backward-recorded Emo/Prog jaunt of opener “New Terrain” and the King Crimson-channels-Pavement strains of “Repeaterbeater” to the stuttering martial Jazz/Math Rock rhythms of “Introducing Palace Players.” But there are shifts, as well — the Pat Metheny Math Jazz of “Silas the Magic Car” gives way to The Shins/Todd Rundgren/Brian Wilson/Genesis epic Pop dreamscape of the seven-and-a-half minute “Cartoons and Macrame Wounds” which in turn leads to the brief ambient interlude “Hawaii Dream,” all melodic counterpoints to the careening rhythms that are typically Mew’s stock-in-trade.

No More Stories is evidence that Mew can rein in their frenetic impulses and explore thoughtful and quietly compelling sonic avenues while remaining true to the weirdly cool bursts of Math Pop that they've perfected over 15 years and five albums.

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