Offa Rex--The Queen of Hearts

Confessed Anglophile Colin Meloy's affinity for U.K. folk music finally comes full circle on The Queen of Hearts, a meticulously crafted collaboration between the Decemberists and English folk artist Olivia Chaney. Comprising strictly traditional fare, the songs that make up Offa Rex's debut will be familiar to fans of the style, as many of their definitive versions have arrived via genre heavyweights like Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. The latter two acts figure most prominently on the 11-track set, with the supremely talented Chaney channeling Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior, delivering pitch-perfect takes on seasoned tales both bucolic and brooding. Meloy and company also adopt the Span/Convention template, fleshing things out with spindly electric guitars, fiddle, and lumbering drums -- the group's take on "Blackleg Miner" hews so closely to the 1970 Steeleye version that it almost verges on karaoke. The secret weapon here is Chaney. Her command impresses throughout, especially on some of the more pastoral numbers like "Old Churchyard," "Willie o' Winsbury," and the knotty Dreamboat Annie-era Heart-inspired title cut, and her presence helps to even out some of the album's more distended offerings, like the doomy psych-rock outlier "Sheepcrook and Black Dog." Meloy and Chaney's genuine love for the source material is apparent throughout, and while it may not bring anything too new to the table, it still makes for a delicious spread. ~James Christopher Monger


Charles Lloyd New Quintet-- Passin' Thru

Passin' Thru finds the great saxophonist looking back through his catalog as well as offering new material. Set-opener "Dream Weaver," the set's longest track, served as the title cut of Lloyd's very first quartet leader date in 1966 (with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Cecil McBee). It is also the outlier in terms of locale, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival while the remainder was captured at The Lensic in Sante Fe. This version commences with a modal, post-Coltrane intro as the saxophonist explores tones and space before Harland checks into its groove, one that touches on blues, folk music, a pop-style chorus and gospel before moving off to explore Eastern modalities, post-bop, and (some) dissonance before circling back to its lovely melody. "Nu Blues" is a striking fingerpopper that flirts with bop and R&B as well as the outside, giving plenty of room to Moran's fluid, virtuosic pianism and Harland's hard-swinging drum inventions as Rogers walks the hell out of his bass. His bassline introduces the bluesy "Tagore on the Delta." Moran spends its first half strumming the instruments strings zither-like as Lloyd digs deep into the groove with his flute, finding heat in Harland's heavy snare and hi-hat attack. At the midpoint, Moran moves to the keys and delivers a mean, meaty solo. At 79, Lloyd shows no signs of slowing down. On Passin Thru', his quartet delivers a truckload of joy, grit, grace and passion. ~Thom Jurek,

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit--The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell took solo credit on his breakthrough albums Southeastern (2013) and Something More Than Free (2015), while 2017's The Nashville Sound is credited to Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. Give the album a spin and it doesn't take long to figure out why. While this is as impressive a showcase for Isbell's talents as a songwriter and vocalist as his previous two albums, this set delivers a richer and more eclectic sound, and this time around, the performances matter just as much as the songs. The Nashville Sound is a less explicitly autobiographical album than Isbell's earlier releases, and the more varied tone of the ten tracks helps to emphasize the thematic strength of Isbell's storytelling, with the electric guitar work of Isbell and Sadler Vaden, the keyboards of Derry Deborja, and the violin of Amanda Shires lending these numbers a wide range of tones and moods. From the crashing dynamics of "Anxiety," the understated dread of "White Man's World," and the spare acoustic approach of "If We Were Vampires" to the guitar-fueled fury of "Hope the High Road," the New South vs. Old South rock of "The Cumberland Gap," and the bittersweet bluegrass-styled confessions of "Something to Love," this is a set of outstanding songs that registers as the work of a great band, as well as the craft of a world-class tunesmith. Isbell was already a gifted artist when he first gained public visibility with the Drive-By Truckers, but The Nashville Sound finds him growing from strength to strength, and it reaffirms his place as one of the best and most emotionally affecting artists working in roots music today. ~Mark Deming,

Broken Social Scene --Hug of Thunder

The fifth full-length outing from the substantial Toronto collective -- this iteration is 15 strong -- the aptly named Hug of Thunder is the band's long-awaited follow-up to 2010's Forgiveness Rock Record. A dense, soul-searching blast of civic-minded indie rock/alt-pop comfort food, the 12-track set is mired in the cultural and political miasma of its time, but Broken Social Scene have always been about community -- Kevin Drew has suggested in interviews that the 2015 terror attacks in Paris served as the impetus for the band's reconvening. Leslie Feist, Emily Haines, and Kevin Drew may serve as the group's ambassadors, but BSS are a ship requiring the whole crew to stay afloat, and Hug of Thunder is buoyant with inclusiveness and cautious hope. The shambolic, post-rock kissing cousins to fellow veteran Canadian pop army New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene's aural emissions may be less confectionary, but they're no less immediate. Forgoing some of the elongated, atmosphere-driven instrumentals that peppered prior outings (wordless opener "Sol Luna" clocks in at just over a minute), things escalate quickly with co-openers "Halfway Home" and "Protest Song," two of the punchiest things the band has offered up in years. They dial it back a bit on the dreamy, Drew-led "Skyline," a lush, midnight highway-ready affair that evokes the easy, classic rock vibe of the War on Drugs, but "Vanity Pail Kids" turns the power back on with a knotty, all-hands-on-deck electro-disco party that sees all three lead vocalists representing. However, it's the wordy, Feist-delivered title cut, a master class in balancing mood and melody, that delivers the album's finest moments, and the best distillation of what makes BSS so venerable. ~James Christopher Monger


Cigarettes After Sex--Cigarettes After Sex

The music that Greg Gonzales and his fellow bandmates produce is slowcore in the extreme. The shimmering guitars, placid percussion, and wistfully delivered vocals also reveal their debt to dream pop and shoegaze. More than anything, early supporters of the band have praised Gonzales' unashamed sentimentality and dyed-in-the-wool romanticism. You don't have to venture beyond the opening track to experience his hazy passion. "K." recalls the early days of an affair with all the desperate adoration that engenders: "Holding you until you fall asleep/And it's just as good as I knew it would be/Stay with me/I don't want you to leave." The band often captures the nebulous nature of the beginning of a relationship through a dizzying, hypnotic mix of lightly administered instrumentation and Gonzales' deeply intimate vocals.  His restless pursuit of a lover in this sleepy gothic tale is claustrophobically intimate; his persistence feels like he's picking at a scab: "Kisses on the foreheads of the lovers wrapped in your arms/You've been hiding them in hollowed-out pianos left in the dark." Any connection to the joys of burgeoning romance is swiftly stripped of its dreamy naïveté by "Each Time You Fall in Love." It quite brutally dispels the myth of true love, describing it as "clearly not enough" and further arguing that "It isn't safe." Overall, chronically anti-romantic moments are eclipsed by sweet, somnambulant melodies that may not quicken the pulse but often hypnotize nevertheless. ~Bekki Bemrose,

Grizzly Bear -- Painted Ruins

If the band's meditative fifth album feels a little out of time, it's in a good way; Painted Ruins sounds timeless rather than tied to any particular moment. Even its structure suggests an old-school album, beginning with the somber prologue "Wasted Acres," which offers a welcome return to the band's postmodern chamber pop even as it mentions a Honda TRX 250 all-terrain-vehicle, and closes with the sweeping, brass-driven melancholy of "Sky Took Hold." In between, the band revisits their music from new perspectives, making slight tweaks but remaining unmistakably Grizzly Bear. "Aquarian" and "Cut-out" borrow some of Shields' insularity as they ponder life's unanswerable questions, while the gorgeous harmonies and harpsichord on "Neighbors" hark back to Yellow House. Elsewhere, the band expands on Veckatimest's poignant pop with "Losing All Sense," which is cut from the same cloth as "Two Weeks," and "Mourning Sound," where the upfront rhythm section gives a deceptive bounce to lyrics like "This isn't a place where I can even try." Throughout Painted Ruins, the beautiful arrangements reflect -- and invite -- contemplation as they carry the songs' ambiguous themes and lyrics, which balance cryptic introspection with flashes of clarity. And when Ed Droste tells a lover who's on the way out "Don't you be so easy" on "Three Rings," it might as well be the album's manifesto. Occasionally, Painted Ruins' drifting meditations border on meandering, but its open-ended beauty is well worth the close listening it takes for the album to fully reveal itself.  ~Heather Phares,




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