The Moore Brothers: A Simple Plan

moore_brothersc2Behold the different methods artists employ in hopes of scaling those gossamer heights known as pop perfection: Swathing a song in layer upon layer of harmonies, then adding strings and horns until they polish the thing beyond recognition. Obsessing over sonic minutiae to the point of dementia and incurring studio bills rivaling the gross national product of some small countries. Retro-fitting the exuberant ring of Rickenbackers with the right haircuts and trousers in hopes of appealing to record-store clerks and the women who spurn them.

Then there’s the Moore Brothers’ less taxing, more dignified approach. It involves little more than the two siblings’ blissfully simpatico high tenors, one acoustic guitar, one microphone and the 40-odd hours of studio time it took to create their positively groovy fourth album, Murdered By The Moore Brothers (Plain).

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Homestead Records: Frontier Days

homestead350Homestead Records released albums by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh, Big Black and Giant Sand. The story of the label that pioneered—and some say plundered—indie rock. By Matthew Fritch

Sub Pop sold grunge and SST peddled punk, but Homestead Records gave you indie rock. From 1983 to 1996, the Long Island, N.Y., imprint left its logo all over the artifacts of alternative music: Dinosaur Jr’s first album. Sebadoh’s first three albums. Sonic Youth’s second album. From the provocateurs (GG Allin, the Frogs) to early-period Seattle scenemakers (Green River, Screaming Trees), from European exports (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten) to NYC free-jazz figureheads (David S. Ware, William Parker), Homestead’s discography documented it all.

Homestead and its parent company, music distributor Dutch East India Trading, was also a breeding ground for tastemaking figures of the underground. Among those who passed through the corporation’s ranks were the future principals of Matador Records, the founders of respected independent stores Other Music and Sound Exchange, an editor of Blender and Spin—even a member of Helmet.

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Martha Berner: Migrant Song

martha_berner520Martha Berner is making up for lost time. Since leaving high school, the 29-year-old singer/songwriter has lived in locations as far-flung and exotic as Alaska, Israel, the Virgin Islands and Thailand. But you can’t blame someone for seeking a life beyond Williams Bay, Wis., a village 90 miles northwest of Chicago without a single traffic light or grocery store. Berner needed to see the world.

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Elf Power: Half Life

elf_powe340Given its name, you can only expect Elf Power to be industrious, light and magic. Back To The Web (Rykodisc), the eighth album from the Athens, Ga., band led by singer/guitarist Andrew Rieger, deftly tinkers with the sonic blueprint.

Back To The Web moves away from the glammy, electric rock of 2004’s Walking With The Beggar Boys in favor of pastoral, acoustic fields. Most of the new album owes less to stomping T.Rex than to starry-eyed Tyrannosaurus Rex. The brief, delicate “Come Lie Down With Me” bears similarities to the traditional British folk ballads Rieger heard on his father’s Fairport Convention and Richard & Linda Thompson records when he was growing up.

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Mojave 3: Fast Times

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If you’re a British band with a reputation for crafting hazy sonic landscapes that move only slightly faster than a Xanax addict, there are two ways to test the limits of your fan base. First, craft an album composed primarily of upbeat pop songs. Second, release the album during the World Cup. Mojave 3 is doing both. The group’s fifth album, Puzzles Like You (4AD), offers a radical departure from its established sound, and it’s released here just three days before the first match kicks off. Songwriter Neil Halstead isn’t particularly nervous, however.

“We’ve been told it’s the worst time to release an album in the U.K.,” he says. “We just have to work around football.”

For Halstead and his Mojave 3 bandmates—bassist Rachel Goswell, keyboardist Alan Forrester and drummer Ian McCutcheon (guitarist Simon Rowe left amicably in 2004)—Puzzles represents facing the unknown. The group entered Halstead’s studio in Cornwall with little more than song sketches and the idea that it wanted to speed up the tempo.

“The record was born from wanting to try something new,” says Halstead. “We were very comfortable doing a certain thing, and it was good to feel like we were out of our comfort zone.”

Puzzles may initially shock—and perhaps appall—fans who relish the languid pace of Mojave 3’s back catalog, particularly 1995’s Ask Me Tomorrow and 1998’s Out Of Tune. Halstead’s usual musical influences (Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan) are present, but much of Puzzles feels as if it’s been baked in the dazzling sun and musky weed of California circa 1965. Halstead laughs at the adjective “groovy,” but it’s an apt descriptor for jaunty, keyboard-driven opener “Truck Driving Man” and the Mamas & The Papas vocal harmonies between Halstead and Goswell on “Running With Your Eyes Closed.” Puzzles Like You’s first single, “Breaking The Ice,” emulates the cheerful Britpop that surrounded Mojave 3 when it rose from the ashes of shoegaze outfit Slowdive a decade ago.

“Actually, a lot of it reminds me of the C86 stuff: Felt, early Creation (Records bands),” says Halstead. “I loved that era.”

According to Halstead, Mojave 3 struggled with the new pop-song structures in the studio. An extended period of recording was followed by an even more painful mixing session. After laboring for six months, the band handed it over to producer Victor Van Vugt, who’s worked with the likes of PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Beth Orton.

Van Vugt dissected Mojave 3’s inscrutable haze and highlighted individual instruments. About halfway through the insanely catchy title track, a whirling keyboard flits out of the mix, builds to a whizzing climax, then floats away. Guitar strings pop like dripping tap water on “The Mutineer.” On “You’ve Said It Before,” Halstead’s drowsy voice hangs above the music-box tinkle and clicking percussion. Wistful moments like this will help endear Puzzles to longtime fans, but it’s the album’s pop side that stands out.

“We do wonder about whether people will like it, but at some point, I can’t worry,” says Halstead. “I just hope we don’t lose any good men along the way.”

—Tizzy Asher