Paul Kelly plays to strengths on sturdy 'Life is Fine'

Paul Kelly, "Life is Fine" (Cooking Vinyl)

Paul Kelly, Australia's national treasure, has gone eclectic in recent releases, unless you consider setting Shakespearian sonnets to music mainstream.

"Life is Fine" returns to familiar territory: sturdy, pop-rock songs from a writer who's a master of economy and expressiveness. Lovely lines abound: "You're autumn trees undressing in the month of May," he sings, a reminder that this came from the Southern Hemisphere. Kelly updates a Roy Orbison song and sets a Langston Hughes poem to music in the title cut.

Vika and Linda Bull shine as singers, and not just backups — Kelly generously gives each a lead in one song (although maybe not too generous, since Vika's assignment, "My Man's Got a Cold," is the album's one true clunker).

The joyous and playful love songs, "Firewood and Candles" and "Josephina," shine particularly bright.

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