Joe Jackson

Rain

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Joe Jackson's 2003 album, Volume 4, found the songwriter reunited with his original backing band for the first time since 1980, and it was his best and best-received effort in years, with Jackson stepping away from the grander conceits of his work as a "serious" composer and turning back to the pithy but literate pop tunes that had long been his forte. Jackson promised that the reunion with his original band would be a one-off, and technically he's kept his word on Rain -- this album was cut as a trio, with Jackson backed by bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton from the original Joe Jackson Band, but without the presence of guitarist Gary Sanford. Minus Sanford, Rain is a bit smoother and more refined than Volume 4, and it's a far cry from the scrappy new wave-inspired rock of Look Sharp! and I'm the Man, but it does show that Jackson learned something from his experience with Volume 4 -- he's better with clever pop songs than trying to write orchestral pieces, and Rain balances sophistication and edgy smarts with a winning mixture of grace and confidence. Jackson's melodies recall the polish and imagination of his work on Night and Day, and his piano work is exceptional here, but the compact arrangements keep the music from getting too florid for its own good, while Maby and Houghton add just the right amount of color and keep the songs moving at a brisk but comfortable pace. Jackson also supplies much of his usual tart wit as a lyricist, pondering his own retreat from A-list stardom in "Invisible Man," taking on photogenic "non-conformists" with "Good Bad Boy," and examining the ups and downs of hedonism in "King Pleasure Time," but Jackson also allows his romantic side to surface here, and "Wasted Time," "Rush Across the Road," and "Too Tough" contemplate love and relationships with a perspective that's mature and honestly heartfelt at the same time. There's less of an air of willful nostalgia about Rain than Volume 4 and the live set Afterlife, but it's still a potent reminder of Joe Jackson's lasting strengths as songwriter and bandleader, proving he hasn't run short on ideas nearly 30 years after releasing his debut.

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