Sharon Van Etten - Are We There

Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten's transfixing voice and often heart-wrenching songs come through in an odd mixture of pain and flourishing inspiration on the best moments of her fourth album, Are We There. The album, produced by Van Etten herself with some help from New York-based producer Stewart Lerman (Elvis Costello, Sophie B. Hawkins), follows her 2012 outing Tramp and trades up on some of the crushed indie templates of that album for new stylistic territory. From her first hushed demo-like recordings, Van Etten's songs have more often than not found their lyrical core stemming from painful relationships and hard times, culminating in Tramp's tales of homelessness, uncertainty, and desperation. Are We There's 11 selections also mine her harrowed heart for inspiration, be it the slow-burning portrait of a toxic love/hate romance in "Your Love Is Killing Me" or the obsessed fixation on an absent lover in "Break Me." Quieter songs like "I Know" and "I Love You But I'm Lost" are driven by piano, leaving lots of space for the vocals to soar, while the cinematic textures and haunted guitar twang of "You Know Me Well" could almost draw comparisons to Lana Del Rey in her more Twin Peaks moments. While still immersed in songs of emotional ravagement and betrayal, the confidence of her performances and spectrum of sounds represented here suggest a complete graduation from troubled, uncertain roots into a place where she can deliver her songs with a powerful, borderless command. ~Fred Thomas,


Mastodon -- Once More Round The Sun

Once More Round The Sun was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, best known for his work with Foo Fighters and Rush. The sound Mastodon pursues here draws inspiration from the '70s, without remotely being an exercise in nostalgia. There is one notable exception; it's deliberate and obvious: "The High Road" boasts unapolgeting Thin Lizzy worship, albeit ambitiously updated. (Who better?) Its verse/riff structure weds Lynott's rhythmic sensibility to Mastodon's dynamic aggression. The anthemic chorus melody and harmonies, and twinned lead guitar roar, were trademarked by Lizzy's Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham long ago. "Chimes at Midnight" is intense, fueled by a mammoth chugging riff. It lets the "drop D" freak flag fly, with a near-shouted vocal, harmonic chorus, and spacey six-string interludes. "The Motherload," with its swaggering guitar heroics, is a wound-out yet nearly hummable prog melody, with a relentless bass and snare attack. "Aunt Lisa," with its knotty guitar intro, contains processed vocals, a series of rising and falling key changes, and the Coathangers guesting -- cheerleader style -- in a chanted vocal chorus à la Faith No More's "Be Aggressive!" There are also some substantive guitar pyrotechnics in the extended solos in "Halloween" and "Ember City," which, due to their imagination and focus, add dimension to them as songs. "Diamond in the Witch House" is a sprawling, nearly eight-minute closing jam. Neurosis' Scott Kelly and his menacing growl guest as it lumbers, trudges, and lurches ever forward (longtime fans will likely dig this). Once More 'Round the Sun furthers what Mastodon began on The Hunter: expanding their music past metal's rigid borders -- even with its many subgenres -- toward an integrative hard rock that doesn't leave metal out. The songwriting, playing, and production here are inspired, kinetic, and far more accessible than ever before. ~ Thom Jurek,

Courtney Barnett -- Sea Of Split Peas

The first album from Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett isn't a traditional full-length. Sea of Split Peas is in fact two EPs tied together to create a full body of work, and it's a testament to her talented songwriting that the track list flows almost seamlessly from her breakthrough 2013 EP How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose into her 2012 release, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. Barnett's greatest asset is her down-to-earth lyrical simplicity, which transforms what would otherwise be a mundane day or story into a tale of intrigue and significance. Obvious standout track "Avant Gardener" is typical of Barnett's dry wit as she explains her unsuccessful attempt at gardening, which results in a panic attack and the realization that she struggles with some of life's simplest tasks as she muses, "I'm not that good at breathing in." Her poetic words are set to a soundtrack of psychedelic-leaning guitar wails and chugging slacker-rock chords, which provide a freewheeling accompaniment to her narration. There is of course more to Barnett than her storytelling, and the churning melodies of "History Eraser" and the excitable "David" both indulge in a few organ blasts, piano twinkles, and rambling riffs that flare into the odd guitar solo. The difference between the two EPs is slightly obvious when the studio polish of 2013's Carve a Carrot Into a Rose -- which makes up the first half of the album -- breaks into the lo-fi sounding I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. The slight change of pace is heard in the unfurling tracks "Are You Looking After Yourself" and "Porcelain," which revel in their simplicity, and Barnett herself admits that this release was never intended to be noted as a full-length album, and was simply an exercise in collecting her work onto one disc. It's clear to see that together these EPs are an indicator of her wonderful songwriting talent. ~ Scott Kerr, Rovi

Andrew Bird -- Things Are Great Here, Sort Of...

Things Are Great Here, Sort Of... marks yet another era of Bird's prolific and ever-evolving career. For one, it's an album of songs by long-tenured Chicago duo the Handsome Family, making this the first of his releases not to contain a single Andrew Bird song.  Over the years, he has proven himself an inventive, boundary-pushing artist, but as a performer, his musicianship is truly something to behold and the performances he and his new band deliver here are strong and wonderfully nuanced. As a longtime friend, admirer, and occasional collaborator, Bird first tackled the Handsome Family's song "Don't Be Scared" (which receives an updated arrangement here as well) on 2003's Weather Systems, an album that marked his sea change into the mysterious, whistling pop maestro that would go on to international acclaim in the years to follow. The dark undercurrents and gothic beauty of Rennie and Brett Sparks' country and folk songs dovetail neatly with Bird's own darker leanings and his interpretations of their catalog are sparse and haunting, aided richly by his Hands of Glory band, which includes fellow songwriter Tift Merritt on guitar and vocals, double bassist Alan Hampton, pedal steel player Eric Heywood, and former Bowl of Fire drummer Kevin O'Donnell. Tracks like "Cathedral in the Dell" and "Tin Foiled" show a kind of laid-back warmth in their delivery, giving the effect of sitting inside the room with the band during a dress rehearsal. Recorded with a single mike running into a tape machine in Bird's Los Angeles living room, the ten songs were knocked out in three days' time, apparently after the album's press release and album cover had already been made public. Whether this ultra-organic approach carries into future releases or is just a sort of mid-career palate cleanser, Things Are Great Here is a lovely collection and another unique release by one of the era's most distinctive artists. ~Timothy Monger,


Bob Mould -- Beauty & Ruin

There is a tension within the title of Beauty & Ruin, Bob Mould's tenth solo album, a tension that can also be heard in the music. Written and recorded in the wake of the death of Mould's somewhat estranged father, Beauty & Ruin is a heavier album than its predecessor Silver Age in both emotional and musical terms. Where that 2012 record was a reaffirmation of his strengths, a happy reclamation of all the blaring, candied punk-pop rush of Sugar, this digs deeper, finding room for the churning introspection of Beaster and a bit of the furious mania of prime Hüsker Dü. This versatility is confirmation that his 2010s band, anchored by bassist Jason Narducy (formerly of Verbow and now of Split Single) and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, might be his most accomplished supporting group ever, able to follow him through the storms and settle into the aftermath. Although this opens with the slow, grinding "Low Season" and eventually winds its way to the bright, open "Forgiveness," most of this record is devoted to turmoil, as Mould comes to terms with his impending mortality -- hanging over him through both the passing of his dad and his own middle-age -- by drawing sustenance from his signature combination of crystalline pop and molten noise. As loud as this gets, what matters is the subtleties of tone: Silver Age felt like a positive reclamation but Beauty & Ruin is somber, feeling sober even at its most joyous moments; "I Don't Know You Anymore," "Tomorrow Morning," and "Hey Mr. Grey" are fueled by ebullient hooks but what they deliver is clutched and coiled, hinting at the intensity of New Day Rising even when there's no denying Mould isn't attempting to reclaim his youth at all. This self-aware mortality is the trump card of Beauty & Ruin, as Mould neither denies his youth nor his age; as he explores his pain, he finds emotional and musical narrative to tie his past to his present and the results are powerful. ~Thomas Erlewine,

Jolie Holland -- Wine Dark Sea

Singer and songwriter Jolie Holland has immersed herself in the love of various American music since the very beginning of her career. From country and folk to blues, gospel, jazz, and 19th century parlor songs, she has always translated these forms with uncommon depth and understanding in her uniquely revealing songs. That said, Wine Dark Sea is somewhat of a departure. Her players -- two drummers, three additional guitarists (all of whom often play simultaneously), and reeds, winds, and bass -- come from the more experimental side of New York's music scene. They ramble, stab, and clatter through these energetic, visceral arrangements that rely as much on her elliptical musical direction as they do improvisational acumen. It's a raw, often raucous presentation, balanced by Holland's mature poetic vision and her continued exploration of American musical forms. She effortlessly links them, one source to another, as seemingly disparate performance styles are filtered through a universal language, the love song, and all 11 tracks here are just that; Holland's are filled with tenderness, ferocity, fearlessness, and unfettered desire. Elizabeth Cotton meets Jimmy Reed and the Velvets in "On and On," with spiraling, scorching guitar breaks inside a bright melody and choogling tempo. Stephen Foster comes toward James Booker in the lovely ballad "First Sign of Spring." John Lee Hooker's house rent boogie drives "Dark Days," but it's informed by Blind Willie McTell's melodic sweetness, even as screaming, fragmented guitars push at the margins. "Route 30" is a strolling country blues; its subtle twists and turns nod at Hank Williams. No one has ever covered Joe Tex like Holland. His "The Love You Save" is performed in duet with Chanticleer Tru, strained through Memphis soul and Albert Collins' Texas blues.  Holland's vocal drips with emotion like honey from her lips. Her creative investment in experimental music to further her reach on Wine Dark Sea takes her deeper and wider than any place she's been before. Holland not only delivers her most intuitively crafted and realized collection to date, but she expands the boundaries and possibilities for American roots music in the process. ~Thom Jurek,


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