Scott Mertz & His Panel of Experts
On “Flight of the CrowBear,” the fourth track on Scott Mertz and His Panel of Experts’ LP You Wish, the mandolin, pedal steel and banjo give way to a steady acoustic guitar underscored with a series of radio sounds. It’s reminiscent of Beck’s folkier early albums. The lyrics turn back on themselves as he repeats the refrains over and over, punctuated by electric guitar and then bass drum. You Wish is clearly labored over. Opening tracks “The Portland Punks,” “The Queen of Beckley, W.V.” and “Mitchell Hill Blues” are rootsy affairs, but, like the ambient folk drone of “Flight of the CrowBear,” there’s little punch to Mertz’s album.
The influences are clear: one part Waylon Jennings, one part AM-era Wilco. There are moments of beauty in the haunting opening of “Song About a Bracelet” and the handclap-propelled refrain of “W.I.S.A.B.I.” Despite the ambitious start, Mertz and His Experts never quite capitalize on moving their songs into something authentically their own. —Hank Willenbrink
TV On The Radio
Dear Science capitalizes on TV On The Radio’s already solid experimental rock legacy. Their third and arguably best to-date finds the band moving toward new, dance-inspired tracks, while improving upon their preexisting talent for slower, dramatic soundscapes.
The production and melodies on “Golden Age” and similar upbeat tracks like “Red Dress” are robust with horns and orchestration. Dave Sitek’s attention to detail on the production is also a big part of what makes the album strong. “Family Tree,” a slower gem, is the song Coldplay wish they could write. The orchestration fills the room, and when the strings grow bolder toward the end, “Family Tree” is right at home on an epic movie soundtrack.
However, TV On The Radio’s genius stems from its ability to develop unfamiliar styles, like “Dancing Choose,” a clash between dance, punk and math rock.
Easily one of the best albums of the year so far, there isn’t a hole on this record that TV On The Radio wasn’t able to fill. —Aaron Frank
To Jobim With Love
Toninho Horta is a virtuoso electric and nylon-string guitar player; his music could be defined as jazz-influenced, Brazilian music. He’s developed a very personal style, playing beautiful harmonies with rich melodies and nice right-hand grooves. Besides being a strong composer and player, he’s also worked many years as an arranger. Pat Metheny considers him to be “one of the world’s great ‘composers’ on nylon-string guitar (violão in Brazil).”
His latest release is a tribute to one of the world’s greatest composers and artists, Antonio Carlos Jobim, architect of the bossa nova movement, and 2008 is widely considered the 50th anniversary of the genre. (It may not be, says Ruy Castro, Brazil’s leading Bossa historian.) It’s a tall order, and Horta falls short.
Three tracks feature vocalist Gal Costa, a Jobim favorite. Only these tracks recast past magic. Sort of. The rest stumble in their slavish recreations, particularly sweet orchestral and choral songs. Better to check out Costa’s or guitarist Roberto Menescal’s Jobim-inspired recordings. —Mark Bacon
Me and Armini
Nobody knows it but everybody’s already heard Emiliana Torini. Hint: “Gollum’s Song.” Yes, that’s her singing over the end credits of “The Two Towers.” Lord of the Rings nerds, however, are probably not the best audience for this multi-talented singer-songwriter. Unless they also like folksy, electronic-influenced songs orbiting a girl’s gilded voice.
Those orbits, by the way, shift styles song to song though not so far that Torrini’s third solo album (not counting those that were only available in her native Iceland) comes across unrelated. To the contrary, the minimalist compositions keep their consistency by enveloping, then elevating her buttery voice. At the same time, she emerges unadorned, understated and completely sublime, especially during the acoustic “Hold Heart,” a sashaying lullaby.
For a taste of her dark side, turn to “Gun,” a deliberate and burning coup d’état underlined by a salacious groove that crosses a Barney Miller bassline with a page from Ennio Morricone’s playbook. As titillating as it may sound, the sentiment is quite steely: Look me in the barrel and tell me that you love me / Yes this is a kiss that I swear will blow your mind. As if listening to her dabble effortlessly between reggae, funk and folk wasn’t mind-blowing enough. —Shawn Telford
Caught In The Trees
(rinse and repeat)
Damien Jurado has offered up a debut album that is filled with mid-tempo ballads and little else. Each track has a formulaic and repetitive arrangement, and by the time you sift through 13 different songs, it begins to wear a little thin. Everything here sounds like a musical melting pot where no one was quite sure of what they were doing: Is it Southern rock, singer/songwriter, bluegrass, country, etc.? It all kind of plays out like some form of rootsy chaos.
The only two songs that stand above the rest are “Gillian Was a Horse,” which has an earthy pop feel, and the apocalyptic bounce of “Paper Kite,” which offers sweet relief.
The vocals aren’t Jurado’s issue here — his voice has a unique blend of Conor Oberst’s indie sensibility and Chris Martin’s knack for pop melodies. Lyrically, the stories that Jurado tells are generally interesting enough to keep you listening, and he doesn’t lack catchy hooks; but the overall instrumentation feels thin and unimaginative throughout. Kory Krukenberg’s mix seems a little off, as if he left the treble all the way up and turned the bass all the way down. —Brent Owen
Our Call Outs
Our Call Outs, the debut from Bloomington, Ind.-based aggregate Beyond Things, straddles a wide chasm between adventurous eclecticism and stilted self-consciousness. The group imbues its sparse, largely acoustic arrangements with eerie, queasy atmospherics, and the off-kilter violin work creates a sense of unease that recalls Camper Van Beethoven’s edgiest work.
However, these elements clash with the group’s over-reliance on keening, Isaac Brock-style vocals, and this weakness is only amplified when the occasionally threadbare melodies fail to catch hold. (It also doesn’t help that the album stumbles right out of the gate with easily its weakest link, the plodding, tuneless “Our Shut Eye.”) Only a handful of songs display much forward motion, but “Skin & Space,” “AfterNextNowThenBefore” and “Now Evades” provide a pleasant contrast with the album’s languid tone.
The closing pair of “Addressing Numbness” and “When What Was Wrong Was Wrong” end things on an especially high note. Moodier and less precious than the rest of the album, these songs suggest that with a little more focus, Beyond Things could shape their potential into something sharper next time around. —Eric Condon