If 2002's Illumination was a warm, laid-back record, Paul Weller's 2005 sequel, As Is Now -- a likeable but unremarkable covers album, Studio 150, appeared in the interim -- is its flip side, a lean, hard-hitting soulful rock & roll album. Not that Weller is returning to the sound of the Jam: he's still with the same band that he's been with since Wild Wood, anchored by drummer Steve White and featuring Ocean Colour Scene members guitarist Steve Cradock and bassist Damon Minghella, and he's working the same musical territory, grounded in Traffic, Humble Pie, '60s soul, and guitar pop. There may be absolutely no surprises here -- even the change of pace "The Start of Forever" is reminiscent of many of his gentler folky tunes, echoing Illumination's mellow vibe -- but for as familiar as As Is Now is, it never sounds lazy; it's a tighter, better record than most of his late-'90s albums. The closest antecedent to As Is Now in Weller's solo catalog is Heavy Soul. Like that 1997 effort, this is a straightforward, no-frills record, heavy on rockers and with few pretensions, but where that album could drift, this is focused and exciting, boasting a stronger set of songs and livelier performances, plus a greater variety of colors and textures in the production. Those subtle differences wind up making a huge difference in the overall effect of As Is Now -- on the surface, it certainly sounds familiar to what came before, but thanks to Weller's muscular, memorable songs and musicianship, it stands apart as one of his more satisfying solo albums.