John Stewart

Havana

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Havana ranks among John Stewart's best albums, which is saying a good deal, since he has released more than 40 -- many of them excellent -- in a career that dates all the way back to 1961. His first new studio recording in five years, Havana features an eclectic mix of 15 folk-tinged ballads and spirited rockers, all but one by Stewart. (The sole non-original is the standard "Lucky Old Sun," which proves a perfect match for the singer's world-weary baritone.) The lyrics -- some personal, some political -- hit their marks more often than not and are frequently poignant ("Waiting for Castro to Die" and the terrific "Cowboy in the Distance") or funny. ("Attention Kmart shoppers," Stewart begins one song, "Do you really need all of that crap?") Not every lyric works: While clearly heartfelt, a tribute to Stewart's wife ("Miracle Girl") is cliché ridden; "Davey on the Internet" is fun but nonsensical; and songs about rock & roll and Princess Diana all fall short in their effort to say something profound. But the melodies and vocals are consistently strong on this CD. So is the instrumentation, which is mostly by Stewart, who plays guitars, banjo, bass, keyboards, percussion, and harmonica. Even when a lyric occasionally falls short, therefore, the music is strong enough to keep you well entertained.

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