CHRIS WALLA: Field Manual [Barsuk]

Chris Walla is a talented guy. His role as guitarist, producer and co-writer in Death Cab For Cutie has led to high-profile production jobs with the Decemberists and Tegan & Sara; like Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, he seems like a behind-the-scenes mastermind. Strange, then, that his first solo album sounds simply like a Death Cab For Cutie LP. Field Manual is full of melancholy, wistful pop songs with lilting melodies carrying carefully written lyrics. Walla’s tenor vocals are even similar to Ben Gibbard’s, but—and this is a big but—Gibbard is the better singer, with a fuller, more assured tone. Walla sounds best on sprightly songs (the jangly “Our Plans, Collapsing,” the bouncy “Sing Again”), multi-tracking his harmony vocals. Left naked and exposed on the somber “It’s Unsustainable,” however, his reedy voice detracts, and you can’t help but wish to substitute Gibbard. Aside from the awkwardly grungy “The Score,” these are good songs well-played, with Walla handling everything except for drums. But ersatz is still ersatz. []

—Steve Klinge

THAO NGUYEN WITH THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN: We Brave Bee Stings And All [Kill Rock Stars]

For Thao Nguyen’s second LP, she enlisted backing band the Get Down Stay Down, and the 11 tunes here are as perky as they are melancholy. With a twang in her voice that’s bound to garner comparisons to Chan Marshall’s drawl, Virginia native Nguyen can make torture sound joyful. “Fear And Convenience” wraps Joanna Newsom-like playfulness, horns and handclaps around a disturbing lyric (“Did he hurt you in a new way?”). “Violet” goes one deeper, dealing with domestic violence without budging from the giddy musical backdrops the band provides. It’s the Get Down’s ability to take what might otherwise be clichéd chord patterns and make them breathe (with bits of tympani, dulcimer and trombone) that ultimately makes We Brave Bee Stings And All interesting, if not a bit fey. On the other hand, from the reggae-like riff of “Bag Of Hammers” to album closer “We Go” and its 50/50 mix of dirge and revelry, Nguyen has the smarts to sense her own catchiness, which fits her like a favorite party dress worn to a neighbor’s funeral. []

—Bruce Miller

LOUIS XIV: Slick Dogs And Ponies [Atlantic]

On 2005 debut The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, these SoCal glam/ garage avatars milked the casual-sex-as-comedic-art teat for all its prurient worth, crafting an album as seedy and hilarious as it was haunting and sophisticated. Still, you had to wonder where these swinging dicks were headed once the penicillin kicked in. Well, superior musicianship and a grandiose dose of attitude once again ally with the obsessive knob-twiddling savvy of frontman Jason Hill on Slick Dogs And Ponies, which revisits its predecessor’s depraved ways while expanding Louis XIV’s aesthetic scope. The best tracks (“Guilt By Association,” “Misguided Sheep”) revel in the group’s ramped-up affinity for T.Rex, with abrupt symphonic interludes (the strings performed by David Campbell, Beck’s father), seizure-like fits of atonal guitar and faux-British accents that come and go. Even on hip-hop-noir downer “Stalker,” Louis XIV can’t keep a lid on its strutting theatrics for long. Yet, aside from a handful of tunes, little here is all that memorable, namely because the hooks can’t see their way clear of the repetitive, robotic arrangements. A bit too fussed-over for its own good, Slick Dogs And Ponies could’ve used a little less studio swagger and a few more great songs. []

—Hobart Rowland

IDA: Lovers Prayers [Polyvinyl]

The combustible Archers Of Loaf begat the bucolic Crooked Fingers, so it’s not entirely shocking that Daniel Littleton came of age in a short-lived ’80s punk outfit called, of all things, the Hated. The seventh proper album from his New York City band—which also features singer/guitarist Elizabeth Mitchell and bassist Karla Schickele—certainly makes it tough to imagine Littleton as the object of anyone’s scorn. Bordering on preciously affectionate, the uniformly gorgeous Lovers has one gear, which is stuck on “fawn.” Measured female vocals are gently caressed by a doubled-up bass line on His Name Is Alive nod “The Love Below,” while the opening title track starts with an emasculated Hold Steady piano line and ends with attractive harmonies spooning in a Laurel Canyon afterglow. HNIA’s Warn Defever lent his mixing talents to the LP, and a clutch of likeminded players make contributions, including experimental folkie Tara Jane ONeil, classical cellist Jane Scarpantoni and avant-garde guitarist Matt Sutton. But aside from of a handful of minor mood-diverting highlights, Lovers Prayers belongs to Littleton, Mitchell and Schickele, rarely straying from their preset trail of pastoral, storybook pillow talk. []

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

Black Mountain: Let’s Get Lost

Making high art that seems to imitate the down and druggy neighborhoods of their native Vancouver, the members of Black Mountain are not your typical stoners. By Michael Barclay

When Stephen McBean looks In The Future—the title of the second album by his band, Black Mountain—he sees a world ruled by tyrants and bastards, spilling blood and conjuring devils and demons. Yet McBean insists he’s an upbeat guy.

“Everyone wants to have a good life and happiness despite all the depressing elements of the world and the stuff that weighs you down,” muses the Black Mountain singer/guitarist. “There’s a lot of great things to celebrate: friends, your community.”

This makes sense coming from someone whose band’s 2005 self-titled debut boasted an anthem with the refrain, “Don’t run our hearts around.” But In The Future (Jagjaguwar) features the hounds of hell and Lucifer himself joining in the blood orgy. McBean denies browsing John Milton or the Book of Revelation. He did, however, read something about Mayan culture that inspired the song “Wucan.”

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THE WHIGS: Mission Control [ATO]

To anyone surprised that the lo-fi catchiness of the Whigs has blossomed into full-blown rock majesty on their second album, remember this: The band is a power trio from Athens, Ga. The charmingly shambolic approach of Give ‘Em All A Big Fat Lip, the group’s 2005 debut, was less an aesthetic declaration than a function of necessity. With the big-budget Mission Control, produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith), the Whigs make it clear that their intent is simply to distill the better elements of the last 20 years of rock ’n’ roll into a powerful concoction. This means a little chamber-pop flavor here (“Sleep Sunshine”), a little open-chord Replacements riff there (“Hot Bed”), some anthems (“Already Young”), some Clash homage (“Production City”) and, in the case of the title track, all of the above. Schnapf’s production hand deftly manages to resolve the differences between the band’s fist-pumping ambitions and the dueling influences of roots rock and indie jitters. Like a more muscular and dangerously drunk frat-boy version of Band Of Horses, the Whigs occasionally hit on moments of poignancy (“I Never Want To Go Home”), but most of their time is spent reinventing the classic-rock wheel in a rather self-aware fashion. []

—Jason Ferguson

CAT POWER: Jukebox [Matador]

Chan Marshall owes her career as much to psychodrama as music, but it’s just now that she’s reached her most harrowing point: a cover of George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing One For Me” that recalls Natalie Merchant vocally and John Mayer’s pseudo-soulfulness musically. Yikes. Jukebox, Marshall’s second album of covers, mostly continues the cleaned-up, virtually lobotomized aesthetic of 2006’s unfortunately heralded The Greatest. Even if Marshall’s liberty-taking revisions of others’ tunes on 2000’s The Covers Record weren’t always successful, they at least forced you to ponder the nature of remakes altogether: How similar is too similar, and how different is disrespectful? Not so anymore. At her best, Marshall merely exposes the beauty of the Highwaymen’s “Silver Stallion” by stripping it down to an acoustic guitar. She brings more melodic cohesion to “Blue” than Joni Mitchell did, but that’s the problem: It all feels so composed. “Metal Heart,” a cover of her own song (from 1998’s Moon Pix), fares best. Whereas before, the possibility of Marshall’s imperfect arrangements falling apart any second created a narcotic tension, the conscious suspense here is no less compelling. It’s her best vocal performance, too, although her always-amazing pipes get in the way and she coasts on sounding pretty. Before, Marshall would put everything—her soul, her manic sense of musicianship, her possible psychosis—into her covers. Now, she just shows up and opens her mouth. []

—Rich Juzwiak

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark [New West]

With 2006’s A Blessing And A Curse, the Drive-By Truckers—perhaps one of the most respected bands to emerge from the American Southeast—had hit a wall. The songs didn’t quite live up to the expectations set by nearly a decade’s worth of focused detail and complex half-truths. But this was nothing time off from the road and a personnel shift couldn’t fix. Gone is songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell, and in his place is founding member and guitarist John Neff. Bassist Shonna Tucker brings in her first three songs, and Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham, who’s been touring with the band of late, drops electric-piano lines that are more felt than heard. Suspended over Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is the steely insight of mainstays Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood. “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife” suggests hope through tragedy over banjo and acoustic guitar. Cooley’s small-town character sketch “Bob” has the playfulness of Tom T. Hall mingling with the Truckers’ own awareness. The problems come with the rockers, some of which seem to have the punch knocked out of them. Tucker’s “Home Field Advantage” sounds like modern-day FM-radio country, while Hood’s “The Man I Shot” wants to explode but gets straitjacketed in the studio. Yet Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is the work of a prolific, well-traveled bunch. That they’ve played themselves out of a tight corner is an impressive feat in and of itself. []

—Bruce Miller

BIIRDIE: Catherine Avenue [Love Minus Zero]

Catherine Avenue is the album Rilo Kiley could’ve wowed the world with if Jenny Lewis and Co. learned the art of subtlety. Biirdie—L.A. residents Jared Flamm (guitar, vocals), Kala Savage (keyboard, vocals) and Richard Gowen (drums)—has perfected the countrified story-song, rooting its pastoral ’70s-pop in orchestral crescendos and lush harmonies. The lyrics are revealing (“Who were you thinking of when we were making love last night? Was it a good-looking stranger or a close friend of mine?”) without being embarrassing. Musically, Biirdie moves between genres like the best of them, but the changes grow naturally within each song, as opposed to the jilting country/synth/ballad shift that occurs from song to song on Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight. Rather, the focus of Biirdie’s sophomore album is on buoyant, sunshiny epics told through Fleetwood Mac-style harmonies that often tinkle into a banjo boogie or swell to climbing, distorted power chords a la the Who. A sense of place roots the LP in dreamy reflection, but it’s Flamm’s voice, which rests somewhere between Jason Lytle’s airy tenor and Conor Oberst’s confessional quaver, that’s oddly affecting. []

—Jessica Parker

Times New Viking: Let It Rip

As immortalized by Guided By Voices on “Dayton, Ohio 19-Something And 5,” the Buckeye State has inspired some of the greatest lo-fi and bedroom rock of the past two decades. But the members of Columbus’ Times New Viking—vocalist/drummer Adam Elliot, vocalist/keyboardist Beth Murphy and guitarist Jared Phillips—are getting a little bored with all the GBV comparisons. Despite the fact that his brother Kevin played in 84 Nash (a band on Robert Pollard’s Rockathon label in the ’90s), Elliot doesn’t cite GBV as an influence.

“Guided By Voices is definitely a reference, but musically I don’t think we’re influenced by them,” he says. “The way we create songs is similar to the way they create songs, just spending Saturday night sitting in your house, making songs with your friends. A lot of people mistake it as we’re trying to sound bad on purpose, but it’s more about recording the song three times after you learned it, so there’s still that freshness to it.”

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