Folks get hung up about Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins' high, keening voice. I don't know if this distaste comes down to homophobia or mere aesthetic roulette. Perhaps I'm inured to the potential grate of Hawkins' sweet tones, due to having grown up with the grand falsetto of Earth Wind & Fire's Phillip Bailey and early 70s "sissy soul" (think the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites, whose lead singer, Eugene Record, died this summer). The Bailey Ideal certainly enables a clean focus on the merits (or lack thereof) of the Darkness' tunes.
The British quartet's latest, One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back (Atlantic; HHH), is something of an emotional concept album. Despite the Meatloaf-esque title, there's less winking to hair-band convention, and more actual darkness in the form of lyrical vulnerability and turmoil. For lack of better descriptors, consider One Way a virtual new genre: mature metal. A different head but no appreciable fall-off since the group's galvanizing debut, Permission To Land. Glam still rears its beautiful glittery head. And "Seemed Like A Good Idea At the Time" nods to pre-knighthood Elton John, as "Blind Man" invokes the spirit of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." "Hazel Eyes" covers the 80s, being the best overt Celtic rocker since "Come on Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners and Big Country's "In a Big Country." "Bald" is a magnificent mid-tempo metallic blues, a combination manifesto and masterpiece of male body horror for the Metrosexual Age that must have Spin's Chuck Klosterman in a tizzy (or already composing copious mash notes).
At the other end of the rock spectrum is NC-born-and-bred alt enfant terrible Ryan Adams. Of course, his propensity for donning a dizzying array of sonic masks suggests he'd envy Justin Hawkins' persona and next time try it on for size. Vainglorious metal god may be the sole mode of rock expression Adams has yet to attempt, but he's certainly done the country-rock maverick before, milking his shared birthday with Gram Parsons for all its worth. Still, Adams, the would-be Nudie'd one, has never accomplished the country crooner voice so well as on the mostly impeccable Jacksonville City Nights (Lost Highway; HHH 1/2) -- one of several records the mercurial boy's released in 05. Even beyond the Deadhead delights of its predecessor, Cold Roses, Jacksonville is the album that dragged me kicking and screaming to the altar of Adamsonia. The hype and mystique surrounding this artist are still off-putting. Yet gorgeous, bittersweet songs such as "A Kiss Before I Go," "The End" (wherein "the leaves burn like effigies of my kin"!) and "Trains" have got me wide open...for the moment.
Adams' rising partner in roots rock is the Southern psychedelic band Fiddleworms, hailing from soulful, music-rich northwest Alabama. The heyday of the Muscle Shoals music network, centered on Fame Studios, faded in the 80s but has been revived recently by the success of the Drive-By Truckers and assorted songwriters (James LeBlanc, who penned Travis Tritt's smash "Modern Day Bonnie & Clyde") and players like Scott Boyer III. Many musicians have seen the area as a haven and that includes former Trucker guitarist and songwriter Rob Malone. On Year of the Cock (Heart of Gold; HHH), Malone returns with this septet -- revived after the death of founder Chris Quillen and nearly a decade's hiatus -- that blends the 60s Shoals and San Francisco sounds. Indeed, the guitarists' combined list of influences underlines that approach: Stephen Stills, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Jack Casady, Chuck Leavell, Jimmy Herring, David Hood. The CD reflects these sonic godfathers. The twang-meets-blues underpinnings of tracks like "Backseat," with its chiming riffs, and the Katrina relief tune "Take a Bow," should ring familiar to anyone acquainted with the post-Sunset Strip pastoral rock of groups like Stills' Manassas. And reflecting the bluesier end, "Lookin' For a Way Out" would fit on any Bonnaroo-bound soundtrack.
Moving backwards into more traditional realms is LEARN: The Songs of Phil Ochs Performed by Kind of Like Spitting (Hush; HH 1/2). This move by the Portland, OR, indie trio comes on like a stunt, their adenoidal harmonies and straightforward presentation suggesting studious efforts at self-conscious simplicity. However, in a time of both emo navel-gazing dominating mainstream rock and a dearth of critical wartime pop, it's heartening to see the late protest singer's work get an airing. Ochs' feelings of alienation and isolation are captured in such songs as "I'm Tired" and "You Can't Get Stoned Enough." Yet Kind of Like Spitting's performances on politically charged standards "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "Draft Dodger Rag" are the sharpest and most affecting. That such a young band should apprentice itself thus and perhaps find a path forward to penning folk classics that might echo across time is heartening.