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Ed Harcourt 

Strangers (Astralwerks)

When much of a musician's art focuses on decadent layers of fancy instrumentation, it's often difficult to separate the bells and whistles from their more sparse foundation. And so when said artist decides to downplay all the lush flourishes and studio accoutrements, will the resulting music still be interesting?

This is the question that U.K. cult figure Ed Harcourt attempts to answer in the affirmative on Strangers, the third and by far most muted disc of his career. Aside from the Broadway-goes-bananas dizziness of "Loneliness," most of Strangers unfolds like a paler version of his previous two albums, at least stylistically: Lounge-lizard soul and pensive Britrock piano ballads float by like diaphanous ghosts of tunes past. Macabre pizzicato strings camouflage an optimism toward love; in his lilting, Rufus Wainwright-style tenor, Harcourt croons lines like "Man must kill to live or quench his thirst"; and a self-referential chamber-pop number, "Born in the 70's," is a defiant -- albeit manicured -- "fuck you" to those who doubt his ability to overthrow the status quo.

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