Gossip in the Grain(RCA)
Over the past four years, Ray LaMontagne has crafted some of the saddest, most beautiful music out there. His voice can be gentle and subdued, but at times it's so pain-ridden that it can bring tears to your eyes. Not a fame-seeker, LaMontagne would rather perform in the dark, safe from admiring eyes. That's why his albums are the true key to understanding the soft-spoken New Hampshire native. He recorded Gossip in the Grain in Box, England, and emerged with a treasure trove full of songs that are folk tales, as well as blues ballads.
He breaks hearts once again on songs like "I Still Care for You," a slow mix of pedal-steel guitar and easy acoustic strumming that isn't far from "Barfly," from 2006's Till the Sun Turns Black. But LaMontagne jazzes things up a bit on a few tracks, with help from members of his touring band. "You Are the Best Thing," the album's first single, sounds like a Motown throwback with horns, and on "Meg White," he sounds like a crushing schoolboy while he sings about riding bikes with the White Stripes' drummer. The few songs that break from LaMontagne's heavy, heartbreaking tone finally let some sun shine through into his music, but it's the tearjerkers that cut the deepest. - Danielle Sills
Don the Reader
Metalcore has become a bastardized genre in the past few years, turning a once-apt descriptor into a detracting moniker. Say whatever you want about the decline - a preoccupation with fashion, a penchant for screamo's more cliché features or just dudes more interested in the concept of metal - but the title now serves as an instant means of rejection for many listeners. And that's a shame for a band like Don the Reader, a group whose down-tuned, off-kilter pummeling, beastly vocals and abrupt dynamic shifts could be optimistically labeled as metalcore. Humanesque provides the sort of gravity-increasing heaviness and brain-jarring technicality that classic metalcore acts like Botch and Coalesce made famous. Opener "328" might not strike you as daringly progressive, with its slow sludgy tromp, but the follow-up, "Malfuntion," hits with a mix of serpentine riffs and snagged interjections. By the time you make it to the Dillinger Escape Plan homage, "Con-sciolist," your mind will be thoroughly blown. So maybe Don the Reader is using the tattered blueprints of a past decade to construct its diabolical sonic enjambments, but at least it's properly bearing the metalcore torch. - Matt Whelihan Cold War Kids Loyalty to Loyalty (Downtown) This Class of 2006 buzz band went through the usual stages of hipster holiness: blogger adoration, blogger backlash, accusations of being covertly Christian and, finally, rejection. But the Long Beach, California quartet's debut, Robbers & Cowards, holds up better than other graduates of the era, like, say, Tapes 'n Tapes - mostly because piano-pounding frontman Nathan Willett rolls his voice over Cold War Kids' songs with zero subtlety and a fondness for fizzy falsetto spurts. It gives the music a sense of wild-ride recklessness that does tire squeals all over their second album, Loyalty to Loyalty. Willett even admits to giving in to such rash impulses on the CD's best song, "Something Is Not Right With Me," a room-shaking rocker plastered with the Kids' trademark heaving piano and reverb-stacked guitar. He pauses for some painting and clockwatching here and there, but on breathless and unruly tunes like "Every Valley Is Not a Lake" and "On the Night My Love Broke Through," he's burning rubber all over the place. - Michael Gallucci
These Arms Are Snakes
Tail Swallower & Dove
When These Arms Are Snakes first hit the scene, they brought a surprising variance to the post-hardcore genre, thanks to guitarist Ryan Frederiksen's disjointed take on the big riffing of Jimmy Page and singer Steve Snere's sensuous and snappy delivery. Unfortunately, their sophomore album, Easter, failed to expand upon this formula, and the result was a tiresome effort full of songs that merely sounded like b-sides left over from their debut. Maybe I wasn't the only one to notice this, because the band's latest, Tail Swallower & Dove, successfully embraces many new tones.
"Woolen Hair" starts off in typical TAAS fashion, with a shattered, screeching riff and counter-striking drum patterns, but then Snere comes in with a sort of strained croon instead of his usual clipped bleats. The chorus, too, shows a vocally adroit Snere going for the "sing" over the "shout." Musically, we're treated to some new angles. "Prince Squid" is led by an atypical, stunted drum beat and start-stop guitar, while "Red Line Season" hosts a liquid guitar line, as opposed to the band's normal chopped style, and "Long and Lonely Step" is led by a fantastic high-end bass riff, which shows that TAAS hasn't succumbed to predictability just yet. - Whelihan
(Hi Fi Recordings)
Todd Rundgren has been on the cutting edge for so long that he has a summer home there. His pack-leading innovations in music video production, multimedia / interactive content and internet music distribution (and the technology behind all of it) have consistently set benchmarks for the rest of the industry. Coupled with his 40-plus years as a DIY multi-instrumentalist, performer and producer, Rundgren is one of the most singular music figures of the modern era. On Arena, his first album in four years, Rundgren sets aside the synths and keyboards that have marked his recent work and returns to the instrument that fueled his early reputation as a genius: the guitar. To reinforce the concept of simplicity, Arena's 11 tracks follow the title's lead, each song christened with a single word (although he sneaks in a compound and a hyphenate).
The album's title also hints at an underlying concept: Arena is filled to capacity with Rundgren's version of the stadium-stomping anthemics of his seat-filling contemporaries. "Mercenary" has the pummeling riff wrangling and distorted vocalizing of today's acclaimed metal purveyors, while "Strike" pounds, rips and bangs anvil like classic AC/DC, and "Bardo" lilts and soars with the grace and power of '70s-era Robin Trower. Of course, Rundgren is no mere tributer; Arena is pure Todd, layered throughout with his signature vocal and songwriting styles, pop melodicism, balladic brilliance and perfectly swaggering rock bombast. For anyone who thought Rundgren had shelved his musical relevance in exchange for his recent role as tech weenie, Arena is solid evidence to the contrary. - Brian Baker
The Fabled City
No one will ever mistake Tom Morello for a great singer. His solo project lacks the sparkle and crash of his day jobs (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) and the lyrical incision of a great singer-songwriter like John Darnielle. Morello employs dark, facile melodrama like Springsteen as a comic book, but once you accept the limitations, it's easy to settle into his shadowy political potboilers. Morello's gruff baritone croon makes the best of its limited range, coolly biting off words like Lou Reed and swaggering through angry narratives that survey the wreckage of Bush's America - from unemployed millworkers ("The Fabled City") to secret prisons and broken levees ("Midnight in the City of Destruction").
While Morello's acoustic guitar is centerstage, just like on last year's debut, it's not as spare. There's more texture and subtle instrumental touches this time. There's also more variety, from the stomping blues-boogie of "Whatever It Takes" to the harmonica-fueled, Irish jig "Saint Isabelle" and the delicate baroque warmth of the biblical "Lazarus on Down," featuring System of a Down's Serj Tankian. The standout track, "The King of Hell," features steel guitar that adds haunting atmosphere to the folksy strum, while Morello imagines someone else (Cheney?) pulling Satan's strings. - Chris Parker
The Jesus and Mary Chain
The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides & Rarities
When the Jesus and Mary Chain broke up in 1999, the band seemed to be at a crossroads. Fans of its early work had almost certainly moved on, while the group produced more and more radio-friendly records to try and garner airplay during the heyday of alt-rock radio. JAMC scored a lone U.S. hit - 1994's "Sometimes Always" - for its trouble. The band reunited in April to play the Coachella Festival, accompanied by Scarlett Johansson on backing vocals. Suddenly, the group everyone took for granted a decade ago was relevant again. It spent the rest of the summer on a victory lap around the globe and is supposedly recording a new album. But first, how about a box set? The timing's right, but too bad the 80 b-sides and rarities spread across The Power of Negative Thinking won't come as anything too new to fans.
Essentially a compilation of the band's compilations, this four-disc set includes nearly all of the band's b-sides and rarities. There are a few previously unreleased tracks, like a 1983 demo of "Up Too High." Psychocandy-era tracks include an alternate version of "Never Understand," as well as demos for "My Little Underground" and "The Living End." They're full of the kind of fuzz you'd expect from a band that created and perfected walls of guitar noise. The Power of Negative Thinking is the kind of fetish-object that completists will rejoice in having. But for the rest of us, all you really need is Psychocandy. - Jeremy Willets
(Vice) I haven't been stopped by a song like Bloc Party's current single, "Mercury," in quite some time. I actually had to play it a few times to figure out where I stand. Sure, I hate songs at first all the time, and they eventually win me over. But "Mercury" is so eye-bogglingly bizarre ... silly hip-hop cutting, screwing and chopping, a-melodic yelping, Bond theme horns, "Shock the Monkey" cribbing and the word "retrograde." Combined with the Planet of the Apes-inspired clip, it's enough to make one laugh. In a good way, I confirm from the back end of a dozen spins.
Kele Okereke is an extraordinarily silly frontperson, from his tastes in bluntness (A Weekend in the City was a concept album about city life! Intimacy features people kissing on the front!) to once denouncing the use of drum machines onstage and now making more electronic music than ever. The Killers' Brandon Flowers is Nick Drake by comparison. Okereke has delightfully crowned his semi-famous years with the hammiest album of his life with this supposed breakup lament, which leads with "Ares," a Dizzee Rascal pastiche with electric toothbrush synths. Another highlight is "Signs," a soft tune so brightly cheesy it floats on wind chimes and metallophones. And so it goes: Intimacy is so heavy on drama there should be a libretto, but it's crucially never boring and occasionally shockingly hummable. Always a good sign with a band one's already written off, especially a band this silly. - Dan Weiss
(Fat Wreck Chords)
Dillinger Four have always been practitioners of the quality over quantity model, with Civil War marking only the band's fourth album in 14 years. As strange as this lack of output may seem, what makes it even stranger is that Dillinger Four are a punk band; in fact, D4's rumbling, gruff, Pabst-fueled cadence helped define the Midwestern-punk sound. And while D4's signature combination of snarky lyricism and damaged-pop sensibilities are still fully intact, Civil War shows a band that isn't merely willing to go through the punk-rock motions.
The most noticeable difference on Civil War may be the production. The guitar tones are cleaner, the vocals are more pronounced and, while the album is far from sounding "slick," it seems to owe more to a power-pop aesthetic than a basement-punk one. The songs are also more controlled now. This is not a train about to derail but a ride with a half-drunk conductor who knows how to up the throttle without risking utter destruction. Slow jam "The Classical Arrangement" and the occasional lyrical dud may raise the eyebrows of diehards, but, for the most part, Civil War shows a true rarity: a punk band aging gracefully. - Matt Whelihan