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American dreaming with Bruce, Barack and Bono

As a new year kicks off, we have plenty of reasons to be fearful. But music has always offered us a way out of the gloom, and in 2009 more than ever we need it to do the trick again. The first big marquee name to come out with all guitars blazing is Bruce Springsteen, whose new album with the E Street Band, Working On A Dream (once again produced by Brendan O'Brien) arrives on January 27.

The fact that this is the day after the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States is not a coincidence. Officially closing the book on the calamitous George Bush era, the crowning of Obama represents a momentous day in the country's history and it seems appropriate that a singer whose songs have always examined the possibilities (and limitations) of the American Dream should commemorate it this way.

The Boss, of course, gave a stirring speech at an Obama campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, last year, where he performed live and warmly embraced Barack, Michelle and the kids on stage.

He told the crowd in the crucial swing state: "I spent most of my life as a musician measuring the distance between the American dream and American reality. I believe Barack Obama has taken the measure of that distance in his own life and work. I believe he understands in his heart the cost of that distance in blood and suffering in the lives of everyday Americans."

And what was the first song played over the speakers after Obama's victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago? Springsteen's The Rising ...

Discussing the new album on his website, Springsteen wrote: "I hope Working on a Dream has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we've ever done. All the songs were written quickly, we usually used one of our first few takes, and we all had a blast making this one from beginning to end."

Bruce's three-night stand at Dublin's RDS last year showed he's still one of the great live performers and he is mooted to return again in '09.

Also on January 26, Scottish art-rockers Franz Ferdinand release their third album, titled Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Largely credited with putting the funk back into indie rock, Alex Kapranos's gang sound as good on the dancefloor as they do in the bedsit. Irish fans heard a few sneak previews at last year's Electric Picnic, and they return to Ireland when they play Limerick's Dolan's Warehouse on February 28 and Dublin's Olympia on March 1.

Then in February, drum roll please ... U2 finally return with their 12th studio album, provisionally titled No Line On The Horizon. Their first in five years, it was produced once again by longtime cohorts Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who also co-wrote some of the material. Having scrapped the original sessions with Johnny Cash producer Rick Rubin, the band relocated to North Africa in summer 2007, recording some of the album on the roof of a townhouse in Fez, Morocco. Apparently, the sound of swallows flying overhead is audible on one song.

So why No Line On The Horizon? The Edge recently had a stab at explaining the album title: "It's an image, Bono tells me. It's like when you're moving forward, but you're not exactly sure what you're heading towards -- that moment where the sea and the sky blend into one. It's an image of infinity, I suppose -- a kind of Zen image."

Song titles on the new album include Unknown Caller, Moment Of Surrender and the title track , which comes in at 7.5 minutes, and is described as "21st Century distortion".

Expect a low-key, understated promotional campaign ... NOT!

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U2's album looks like overshadowing the return of Ireland's second most popular band -- Bell X1 -- whose follow-up to the hugely successful Flock is also slated for a February release. Titled Blue Lights On The Runway, it's the Celbridge group's first release since the departure of keyboard player Brian Crosby.

Then in March, Irish r'n'b/soul acolyte Laura Izibor finally gets around to releasing her debut album. Now anyone who read my prediction this time last year will know that I tipped Laura for great things in '08 but, alas, her record was, once again, put on ice. But we're told that it should finally see the day this spring -- the omens are good: Laura supported none other than Aretha Franklin in the Nokia Theatre in New York's Times Square last month; she profiled in Rolling Stone magazine a few months back; and her forthcoming single Shine was used on a radio ad for an Irish insurance company.

Also in March, Dublin singer/songwriter David Kitt returns with a new album, titled The Night Saver, on the Parasol label.

And Malahide indie rockers Director are set to return -- their new downloadable single Play Pretend should appeal to all you Interpol fans.

Dublin-born Imelda May will be familiar to those of you stay up past your bedtime to watch Jools Holland's Later. A modern day rockabilly queen, May breathes new life into an old genre, and her use of a bodhran is a quirky touch that fits her highly percussive sound to a T.

Elsewhere, Blackpool's 24-year-old bright young thing Victoria Hesketh AKA Little Boots is being tipped by the BBC's hugely influential Sound of '09 poll as one to watch. Continuing the revival of 1980s-style electro-pop, Little Boots will be supporting Mystery Jets on the forthcoming NME tour. Her high-octane (and high octave) songs Meddle and Stuck On Repeat can be heard on her MySpace page.

In a similar vein is La Roux, an electro boy/girl duo that features a Tilda Swinton look-alike singing highly stylised synth-pop that calls to mind Prince circa When Doves Cry.

Having supported Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs on tour, UK singer Esser is also being tipped to break big this year -- his haircut may be a throwback to 1950s rockabilly, but his music is like a Londinium Beck -- imagine Loser sung by Mike Skinner.

And brace yourself for the return of Lily Allen, who even after only one album has become the quintessential overexposed pop star. Her sophomore effort is called It's Not Me, It's You, and according to her website, it "might be the only album they'll hear in 2009 that references racism, ageism, the dark side of celebrity and consumer culture, drug dependency, 9/11, premature ejaculation and the enduring rubbishness of men".

God help us.

On the plus side, there are already some meaty gigs lined up for 2009. The opening last month of the new O2 arena has given a shot in the arm of the live music scene. Bouncy radio-friendly rockers Keane and the reunited not-so-New Kids On The Block are due the in the next few weeks, while Bob Dylan plays two nights in the docklands venue in May, Beyonce sashays into town on May 29, and Pink is scheduled for October.

Down in the south-west, Elton John will be the first big name to play the revamped Thomond Park stadium in Limerick.

And the itinerary for Morrissey's Irish tour in April/May raised a few eyebrows: the indie god has pencilled in a show in Omagh as well as Galway, Belfast and Killarney ... but none in Dublin. Mozzer's new album, Years Of Refusal, is due in the spring -- and will contain some of the songs he unveiled at his show in Kilmainham Gaol last summer: Something Is Squeezing My Skull, Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed and I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris. And Coldplay return to Ireland when they headline the 40,000-capacity Phoenix Park in September. Viva 2009.

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