Music review: Breathing underwater

Aqualung

“Strange and Beautiful”

Sony BMG

Four and a half out of five stars

Matt Hales, the somber genius behind Aqualung, was born to play music.

Raised above his parent’s record shop, Hale began writing songs at the age of four and conducted his first symphony at 17.

After sprouting pop-wings with ill-fated Brit-rockers Ruth and The 45s, Hales burnt out. Broke, band-less and disillusioned, he did what anyone born to play music, but bored with music, would: something entirely new.

Shirking the black-and-blue beaten trappings of the British rock scene, Hale’s rebirth came in the atmospheric, classically rooted rock of 2002’s self-titled debut and 2003’s “Still Life.”

After establishing his new-found flame as Aqualung, Hales is blazing his way out of the U.K. on the wings of “Strange and Beautiful”-a compilation of the best of his previous works.

Hales christens his stateside declaration with a bit of the beautiful as “Strange and Beautiful (I’ll Put A Spell On You)” unleashes his melancholy demons in a soft-core Thom Yorke-esque croon. Hale wastes no time in flaunting his splendor as honey-coated melodies soak deep into the spaced-out jazz of “Falling Out of Love” and the apocalyptic-minimalism of “Tongue-Tied.”

Aqualung reveals its stranger side as Hale’s classical heritage enlists haunting-harpsichord leads on the eccentric-confessional, “Extra Ordinary Thing.” The symphonic swells of “Good Times Gonna Come” and “Left Behind” save “Strange and Beautiful” contemporary soul, as these Renaissance aesthetics are dragged into modern times by Hale’s tear-harvesting poetics.

Hale’s consistent excellence in turning overcast piano arrangements and ethereal sound effects into beautiful music comes close to casting the dreaded too-much-of-a-good-thing curse upon “Strange and Beautiful’s” lovelorn soul, but manages to escape through the sheer gorgeousness of each track. It’s hard to turn beauty away for simply coming on too strong.

Dan Fletcher