The Decemberists “The King Is Dead” (Capitol)
The Decemberists' sixth studio album sounds less like an indie-rock LP and more like the side project of a group of musically inclined downtrodden miners. Gone are the grandiose symphonic sounds of the previous effort “The Hazards of Love,” replaced by pastoral melodies more reminiscent of the Wild West than the West Coast. While the album retains the group's signature lush and nuanced approach, the blend of harmonicas, violins, guitar twangs and rustic themes set “The King Is Dead” apart from previous releases. Songs include the melancholy, nearly nihilistic “Rox in the Box” to the contemplative “January Hymn,” and the REM-inspired — Peter Buck plays on the record — “Down by the Water.” Then there's the unapologetic country and western tune, “All Arise!” Because of a near-perfect use of theme and tone, “The King Is Dead” conjures images of a rural family band, mountain-bred, playing its meager set with coal-stained fingers.
[image-2]PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” (Vagrant Records)
The title of PJ Harvey's eighth album might suggest more bang and fervor than we actually get, especially if you still are holding out for the return of “Sheela-Na-Gig.” This diverse collection of songs may leave some damning the day that Polly Jean picked up the autoharp in lieu of a growling guitar, but it does have redeeming qualities and provides a testament to the singer's boundless creativity. And with overarching themes of war, jolly ol' England and nationalism, this could be called Harvey's most political album to date. Despite powerful words and grim imagery, however, the album's curious arrangements leverage such oddities as cavalry horns, Kurdish singers and roots-reggae samples to frame arresting vignettes detailing the human experience during conflict. Complemented by Harvey's always striking vocals, the album unsettles and ultimately rewards.
[image-3]Jim Sullivan “U.F.O.” (Light in the Attic)
In the early '70s singer and songwriter Jim Sullivan performed mellow folk blues with a mystic lyrical bent in Malibu bars for the likes of Lee Marvin, Farrah Fawcett and Harry Dean Stanton. His recording career stalled and he took off in his Volkswagen Bug for Nashville, only to disappear in New Mexico under suspicious circumstances. A body was ever found and conspiracy theories swirled — involving things such as UFOs and murderous state troopers. Lucky for us, Light in the Attic has released Sullivan's obscure, near-classic 1970 record, remastered from surviving private-press vinyl, capturing him in all his warm, crackling glory; his weathered baritone like a California version of Village folkie Fred Neil, his melodies recalling Gene Clark's baroque country pop. Producer and arranger Jimmy Bond draws out the expressive blues in Sullivan's songs using legendary session players from the Wrecking Crew, which laid down Phil Spector's wall of sound and played on records for acts as varied as the Beach Boys and Nancy Sinatra. Judicious touches of orchestral strings provide eerie accompaniment while jazzy drum-playing and keyboard fills recorded up front make you wish these songs stretched out more. Self-contained, laidback grooves such as “Plain as Your Eyes Can See,” the catchy “Roll Back The Time” — which sounds like a lost Buffalo Springfield folk-rock nugget — and the prophetic ballad, “So Natural” (“I just want the wind to blow/my ashes until they're out of sight”) hint at what Sullivan might've accomplished had he made it to Nashville.
[image-4]Eli “Paperboy” Reed, “Come and Get It!" (Capitol Records)
It looks like retro soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed has sold out. He's one of the first of the retro-soul movement to sign to a major label. He's also submitted to the demands of hit-making producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Busta Rhymes), who isn't known for the organic sounds found on Reed's first two records. He even poses in a supermarket on the cover, hawking his music along with crackers and bleach. But looks can be deceiving. On “Come and Get It!” the white boy from Boston is still singing and playing that funky music with energy and emotion. There's a right way to make music, and Reed is doing it. Even when his lyrics become as predictable as a metronome (“Time Will Tell” and “I Found You Out”), his seven-piece band, the True Loves, is there to carry him with horn blasts and timeless riffs. And occasionally, Reed's writing is elevated by his gritty vocals, especially on the down-tempo “Just Like Me,” and the song becomes more than a clever facsimile of a soul song, but its own thing altogether. Unlike soul diva Sharon Jones, who led the retro soul movement, Reed has time on his side and a look that the marketplace loves. If he can continue to create music on his own terms, this Paperboy could be front-page news.
[image-5]David Lowery “The Palace Guards” (429 Records)
Richmond transplant David Lowery made his name with college-rock weirdos Camper Van Beethoven in the 1980s, created hits with proto alt-country outfit Cracker in the '90s, then juggled the two bands during the 2000s. If “The Palace Guards” is any indication, the 2010s may be his solo years. This is the first release to bear his own name, and appropriately the songs sound too studio-bound and too grizzledly folksy for either of his established bands. Fortunately the deliriously wry songwriting and raspy vocals remain intact, and Lowery continues to blend rock snarls with almost literary smarts. Ramshackle opener “Raise 'Em Up on Honey” may be about home-schooling, pot-dealing, gun-wielding survivalists, but it's not a culture war volley. Lowery seems to envy the lifestyle. Surprisingly, he sounds best when he sounds most vulnerable and ruminative, as on the hallucinatory “Deep Oblivion” and the plaintive “Ah, You Left Me.” Keep an eye on this newcomer, he's really going places.
[image-6]Near Earth Objects “Manual for Self-Hypnosis” (self-released)
There's always something interesting going on within the cinematic percolations of Richmond-based Near Earth Objects. Their “interstellar sophistifunk” is an askew descendent of Medeski Martin & Wood, the rhythm section jam band pioneers. The Objects have a short attention span — not a weakness in this kind of music — moving from idea to idea, texture to texture in a way that keeps the groove from becoming a rut. Sharply realized contributions from guitarist Alan Parker and trumpeter Mark Ingraham provide an additional sonic dimension, but it's the inventiveness of the trio that provides core strength for the band and the album. Keyboardist Joe Ciucci is experimental without being incoherent, lyrical without being cloying. Bassist Nathan Goodwyn supports and plays off the main line and drummer Scott Milstead crafts a polyrhythmic, mostly funk superstructure. While the band arguably qualifies as a jam band and the production-accented music occasionally has a trippy, psychedelic texture, the playing never slips into the amiable noodling too often characteristic of the jam genre. For those who want to hear the band in their natural, unedited context, Near Earth Objects have a regular monthly gig on Sundays at the Commercial Tap House on Robinson Street in the Fan.