ANGELS OF LIGHT: We Are Him [Young God]

Not many musicians get a shot at a second career, especially if their first one lasted more than 15 years and produced music of such intensity as to dare a follow-up of any sort. Yet with Angels Of Light, ex-Swans honcho Michael Gira has done just that, and fifth album We Are Him arguably surpasses his work with his old band merely by simplifying things a bit. The orchestrations that graced such Swans masterpieces as 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind haven’t been completely dispensed with, but Gira isn’t consciously avoiding the “rock” tag anymore. He is, however, just as likely to sing a waltz (“The Man We Left Behind”) or turn the clichés of a 12-bar blues (“Promise Of Water”) into something nearly as scary as an old Skip James record. But elsewhere, oh how he rocks. “My Brother’s Man” consists of Gira’s stretched and disturbing voice sailing atop a jagged guitar riff. There’s redemption here, but as with a Bad Seeds record, it’s only attained through the spilling of blood. On “Sun-flower’s Here To Stay,” Gira and the Angels produce a pop song with piano and trombone, complete with positively joyful, wordless backing vocals. Gira used to focus on the sheer sound of his productions; with We Are Him, he puts his energy into the songs themselves. []

—Bruce Miller

GRAVENHURST: The Western Lands [Warp]

Gravenhurst mainman Nick Talbot is a sad guy, but on the group’s fourth album, he keeps finding new and interesting ways to describe, if not ease, his own pain. “Hourglass” mulls the emotional significance of the specific places that trigger flashbacks to past relationships, while “Trust” imagines whether chasing down the ex of your ex for a heart-to-heart would be as soul-crushing as it sounds. The Bristol, England, quartet is growing musically as well, coloring its stark narratives with tweaked-out guitar sounds and piano (the My Bloody Valentine-ish “Hol-low Men”) and artful smears of noise (“Farewell, Farewell,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Yo La Tengo’s Painful). Compared to 2005’s Fire In Distant Buildings, whose last two songs took up nearly 20 minutes of the album, The Western Lands offers more bang for your buck. There’s a snaking, vaguely krautrock-ish guitar figure on “She Dan-ces,” an Ennio Morricone-style Western motif propelling the instrumental title track and a melodic tension on closer “The Collector” that forgives its lack of full release. Love still bites, and it’s nice to know Talbot is there to set the damage to song. []

—Jonathan Cohen

CLARE & THE REASONS: The Movie [Frog Stand]

Poor, pitiful Pluto. So cold, so dark, so distant. And now that it’s no longer a planet, Clare Muldaur Manchon feels very sad. Breaking the bad news in “Pluto” and “Pluton,” the two cuts that bookend The Movie, Manchon’s soprano quavers like a falling soufflé, a trio of saccharine strings playing pizzicato in the background. It’s a beautifully lush, ‘40s-era opening, her voice resonant with romance. The Berklee-educated daughter of Geoff Muldaur (guitarist of the gleefully retro Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band), Manchon sings as if she’s been time-traveling like this all her life, as if it were perfectly natural to swing this effortlessly from jazz to folk to noir and back again. The smartly contemporary songs overflow with style, whether she’s writing about bohemian break-ups (“Alpha-bet City”), waxing philosophical (“Love Can Be A Crime”) or dreaming of wedded bliss (“Cook For You”). The Movie is a slyly earnest, bubbly concoction, its melodies buoyant and its lyrics sharp. With help from Gregoire Maret, Van Dyke Parks and Sufjan Stevens, the seven-piece Brooklyn band packs all the high drama of a full orchestra: sharp, urbane and deliciously unstuck in time. []

—Kenny Berkowitz

WARM IN THE WAKE: American Prehistoric [Live Wire]

Despite the presence of searing hot stars, violent meteoric collisions and assorted NASA jetsam, outer space is primarily composed of a whole bunch of nothing. Not much happens. When it does, though, the action is breathtaking. By describing itself as “cosmic,” Warm In The Wake is being far more literal than it probably realizes. Much of the Atlanta quartet’s debut drifts along in a pleasant AM-radio daze until a startling piece of instrumentation punctuates the emptiness like a falling star. On “Joseph Campbell,” whirring, squealing synths flare up against a lush bed of jangling guitar. On the Sea And Cake-styled “Airport Girl” and “Dark Gypsy Moth,” a jazzy piano streaks beneath Christopher Rowell’s soft-as-a-pillow vo-cals. Prominent drums and a whisper of guitar lead off “Reelin’” with a beat lifted from U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s as if Brian Eno suddenly started knob-twiddling for an unknown Southern band’s porch jam. Perhaps because much of American Prehistoric was recorded live, these instrumental accents never disrupt the flow of the song. That promise of excitement is what makes the spaced-out stretches of this LP worth contemplating for hours on end. []

—Tizzy Asher

EARLIMART: Mentor Tormentor [Majordomo]

Long saddled with expectations of becoming L.A.’s next big export, Aaron Espinoza and Co. have earned plenty of acclaim, most notably with 2004’s lush, Elliott Smith-dedicated Treble & Tremble. But so far, Earlimart hasn’t lived up to its considerable promise or delivered an album filled end-to-end with great songs instead of five terrific tracks and a remainder of tasteful, often unmemorable guitar pop. Three years and a new label later, the 15-track Mentor Tormentor may be Earlimart’s best album. But it still falls short of greatness, hamstrung by songwriting and production moves that have clearly become the band’s comfort zone. Not that this is always a bad thing. “Answers And Ques-tions” hits every note in the Earlimart playbook: Soaring synth washes, airy electronics-dusted production and Espinoza’s sighing vocals carry a chorus as broad and beautiful as a sunset. But unexpected moments—keyboardist Ariana Murray’s Aimee Mann-esque turn on “Happy Alone,” Espinoza snarling through the fuzzed-out “Everybody Knows Everybody” and the choir and handclaps backing “Cold Cold Heaven”—overshadow the rest of the album with an energy Earlimart seems so maddeningly reluctant to tap. Such flashes feel like opening a window in a stuffy room, only to slam it shut. []

—Chris Barton

MEKONS: Natural [Quarterstick]

After 30 years, the Mekons really are the last gang in town. Although only Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh remain from the lineup that recorded debut single “Never Been In A Riot” in 1977, most of the current Mekons have been together since the proto-alt-country revelations of 1985’s Fear & Whiskey. Every few years, they round themselves up from their solo careers and side projects that are no longer peripheral to throw another bottle of devilish potions into the world’s ocean. Natural, their first collection of new songs since 2002’s OOOH!, is a mostly acoustic affair, with Susie Honeyman’s mournful fiddle threading throughout. It’s full of loose sing-alongs, drunken chants and spooky ballads; of apocalypse, cynicism and Satanism; of a jaded worldview that joyfully sees everything as—in the words of the opening track—“Dark Dark Dark.” “Ignore the human sacrifice,” sings Greenhalgh on “Burning In The Desert Burning,” a song about suicide bombers. “You have to believe this is the end,” sings Sally Timms on “Cockermouth,” a reggae-flavored ditty that’s full of a zest for life. We may be going to hell, but with the Mekons to guide us, we’ll enjoy the ride. []

—Steve Klinge

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: Challengers [Matador]

For the New Pornographers, 2005’s Twin Cinema marked a period of significant transition. Not only were the band’s hyper-pop blitzes tempered with more sobering balladry and expansive, prog-informed set pieces, but the promotion of touring keyboardist Kathryn Calder to co-vocalist suggested that ringleader Carl Newman was no longer willing to work around the ever-busy schedule of star chanteuse Neko Case. (To say nothing of wild-card contributor Dan “Destroyer” Bejar, who’s also running on borrowed time.) So it’s with considerable relief that all the original Pornographers appear in their usual proportions on Challengers, underscoring their commitment to a cause that, four albums in, shows no signs of flagging. Where Twin Cinema featured a sometimes abrupt trade-off between upbeat and downcast, Challengers feels more comfortable with the act of taking it easy. Unlike the hard-charging openers of albums past, Challengers begins with the beatific “My Rights Versus Yours,” whose ascending, melancholic melody is left unadorned until the second chorus, when the drums kick in to trigger a gentle, piano-pounded gallop to the finish line. The song sets the album’s pleasingly patient tone. While longtime fans may lament the paucity of instamatic anthems, “All The Old Showstoppers” and “Unguided” reveal their charms with each new verse. And really, we end up just where we did seven years ago, with a rousing, Bejar-penned finale. But where Mass Romantic’s “Breaking The Law” demanded the keys to the kingdom, Challengers’ “The Spirit Of Giving” finds the Pornos on the inside, victorious and sitting pretty. []

—Stuart Berman

HARLAN T. BOBO: I’m Your Man [Goner]

Is it selfish to wish misery upon Harlan T. Bobo? Because clearly, that’s when the Memphis troubadour’s best music gets made. Brandishing a creaky acoustic guitar and a broken baritone on his 2005 debut Too Much Love, Bobo turned his own hellish agony into high art. The intoxicating country-noir album lamented a lost love—namely, ex-wife Yvonne—with a weary-eyed vibe that evoked Joe Cocker and Nick Cave shooting the shit at midnight over tumblers and weed. Now Bobo is back with this similarly themed follow-up, and like the embattled relationships that still populate his songs, it’s hot and heavy at the beginning and end while souring somewhat in the middle. I’m Your Man boasts the same blend of unhinged, up-tempo rockers and genuinely affecting ballads. But with Bobo seeming more third-party documentarian than dejected protagonist, it’s sad to say the stakes here don’t feel as high. (The bland trio of “Tick Tock,” “Pragmatic Woman” and “So Bad,” a bloated midsection of colorless waltzes, doesn’t help.) I’m Your Man regains its footing before the finish, though. “One Of These Days,” a half-lovely/half-spooky late bloomer, reverts to old, resentful ways; “You’re gonna pay for killing our romance,” Bobo groans slowly. It’s good news for people who love bad news for Bobo. []

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

TAKEN BY TREES: Open Field [Rough Trade]

After 11 years fronting Swedish popsters the Concretes, Victoria Bergsman has pared everything down to allow her delicate, charmingly accented voice to stand on its own. Her solo pursuit is named for her fascination with all things coniferous and deciduous, and Open Field has the same ethereal, quietly beautiful quality as a wintry forest wonderland. Bergsman’s voice is enchanting: lightly dancing and uplifting at times (“Lost And Found”), melancholic and wandering at others (“Tell Me”). Think Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of “Moon River” in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell if she was sent off to contemplate cedar trees and grassy plains. But really, Bergsman’s voice is like no other. True to their organic conception, the songs were built from the vocal melody up, and instrumentation was added only when absolutely necessary. Providing the lightly swelling, drifting score are fellow Swedes Bjorn Yttling (strings) and John Eriksson (percussion) of Peter Bjorn And John, a collaboration that occurred following Bergsman’s appearance on their ubiquitous “Young Folks.” The result is serene, breathtaking and transportive. Whether she’s singing about love, loss or solitude, it’s all filtered through a kaleidoscope of natural, haiku-like simplicity. Stark but not empty, Open Field could induce you to take a secluded stroll through the woods. []

—Jessica Parker

LEONARD COHEN: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen / Songs From A Room / Songs Of Love And Hate [Columbia/Legacy]

leonard-cohencdEvery spook-rock kid worth his superstitious salt should unearth the first three albums from Leonard Cohen, the veritable grandfather of goth. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since this Canadian poet/novelist began setting his Baudelairean rhymes to music with The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. It’s even more difficult to fathom the bass-dramatic depths to which his once-angelic voice would sink in later years, almost as if he were crooning from the musty catacombs. But the tentative, almost boyish softness of Cohen’s first folksinging forays only underscores his grim lyrics.

Decadence is part of the secret allure of Cohen, whose 1967 debut is easily the most enduring effort of the triumvirate. When he murmurs odes to “Suzanne” and “Winter Lady,” then counters his “So Long, Marianne” with the rejoinder “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” you get the impression that this smooth-talking guy has loved and left more exotic women than Casanova. Dig deeper, and the religious issues with which he has eternally wrestled begin to surface. Delve deeper still, and an urban, almost-beatnik edginess appears, as on “Stories Of The Street”: “I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose/One hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.”

Cohen’s schematics are always startling; some songs follow a verse/chorus pattern, a la the classic “Bird On A Wire” (from 1969’s Room), but many just tumble by in a Thurber-ish stream of consciousness. Cohen makes it sound school-room simple, although he would later admit to struggling for a full year to perfect just one track. As he wends his way through these three albums, you can feel his skies clouding over, his outlook dimming, that lilting voice sinking into its eventual 1,000-cigarette quagmire, dragging the listener right down into the hallowed haze along with him. Bonus Material: Room adds a bass-heavy version of “Bird” and a reworked “You Know Who I Am” titled “Nothing To One”; Love And Hate features an early take of “Dress Rehearsal Rag”; and Leonard Cohen boasts the most intriguing outtakes (the loping “Store Room” and an organ-buttressed “Blessed Is The Memory”). []

—Tom Lanham