THE CHRONICLES OF LIFE AND DEATH

Good Charlotte

Stick with Good Charlotte for the first few minutes of "The Chronicles of Life and Death" -- once what sounds like a soundtrack to the most pretentious samurai movie ever fades out -- and the Maryland neo-punks swing into the poppy, propulsive march that shot them to fame with "The Young and the Hopeless."

Not that the quartet ever lets go of the pompous new additions to its drums-guitar-bass setup entirely, but if fans can overlook the occasional string section, acoustic strum and crummy ballad ("The Truth" is truly skippable), there's plenty of heart-racing aggro to be had.

The album doesn't address the big themes as promised, which comes as a relief -- philosophy is a mug's game for a rock band, especially one whose members are in their mid-twenties. Instead, it's tight and sturdy, credibly full of teenage angst and as punk as the new millennium can sound in the brainshock-fast "Walk Away" and the shouted midsection of the anthemic "Predictable."

Elsewhere, innovation does the band good. The funky quasi-rap "I Just Wanna Live" is a deft, un-whiny plaint about the cradle-to-grave grind of the overnight rock star, with a cool falsetto bridge. And the strings add a genuine poignancy to singer Joel Madden's appealingly strained vocals -- he sounds as if he's always trying to sing a note that's just out of reach.

"Chronicles" comes with either a "life" or a "death" bonus track. Speaking for "death," "Meet My Maker" is absurdly grandiose -- dude, you're 25; you're not going anywhere -- but like the rest of the album, it's pretty great punk-pop.

-- Arion Berger

AGE OF MIRACLES

Chuck Prophet

"Automatic Blues," the first track on this CD, kicks off with a swirl of Moog, a snarl of guitar -- and the faint sound of a woman laughing. She was probably laughing at Chuck Prophet. It's not that the former frontman of proto-alt-country band Green on Red doesn't make some serious -- and seriously moving -- music. It's that, whether onstage or in the studio, he obviously loves his work. Whatever stylistic territory he explores -- and "Age of Miracles" roams far, from hip-hop to garage to jangle-pop -- his work is unified by his sometimes doomy, sometimes ironic voice, and by a creative delight that never seems smug or academic.

That consistency is how he can make the leap from "Automatic Blues," a rocker so sludgy it brings mental images of dinosaurs dragging themselves from La Brea, to "Age of Miracles," a sort of hippie-hymn-cum-head-trip-cum-cult-nightmare, with its mind-bending opening lines: "The night is gonna crush the day / Once it was the other way / We hope that you enjoy your stay." This track is barely gone before electronic blips and Prophet's voice, wailing "I got a letter this morning" through a bullhorn, open "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)." When he raps "Who put the bomp in the bomp-shooby-dooby-bomp?" it's half affectionate tribute, half ominous accusation. Neither parody nor full-on hip-hop, it's just the right edgy, sometimes ambiguous style for the song's mood.

A fine group of musicians, including several keyboardists, percussionists, horn players and backing vocalists, support this ambitious yet confident effort, designed to give its audience as good a time as its maker is having. On several songs, Prophet is still singing over the fadeout, as if he just can't be stopped.

-- Pamela Murray Winters