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Neko Case Leads This Week's New Releases 

Plus, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Propaghandi, And More

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Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

(Anti-/Epitaph)

Neko Case has charted a fascinating career path from punk drummer to roots-pop singer-songwriter. The New Pornographers have provided Case with many memorable vocal moments. But she's excelled in her impeccable solo work, which reached its zenith on her third studio album, 2006's brilliant and broadly brushed Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, an almost impossible melding of classicism (Dusty Springfield, Patsy Cline) and contemporary translation (Emmylou Harris, Kate Bush). On Middle Cyclone, Case retains the elements that made Fox Confessor infinitely listenable (linking rootsy tradition with pop modernity, lyrics that engagingly blend head-scratching obfuscation with mountaintop wisdom and clarity) and folds in an extra level of sonic exploration, moving from pure roots-pop purveyor to slightly more esoteric musical provocateur. Still, Middle Cyclone's epic closer "Marais La Nuit," a half hour of dead-of-night cricket calling, is perhaps better suited for an Eno/Fripp freakout. But the rest of Cyclone is classic Case with interesting new twists, as if she recently discovered Van Dyke Parks' catalog, particularly on the Nilsson-esque "Don't Forget Me," the off-kilter, Tom Waits-on-estrogen sly swagger of "Prison Girls" and a laconic take on Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." Even on tracks where Case channels her own estimable past ("This Tornado Loves You," "People Got a Lotta Nerve," "Vengeance Is Sleeping"), she works in some new jazzy, folksy filigrees to tastefully appoint her surroundings. Middle Cyclone is clear evidence that Case is less interested in recreating her past triumphs and more invested in their expansion and evolution. - Brian Baker

Justin Townes Earle

Midnight at the Movies

(Bloodshot)

There's no running from the legacy of his names. But Justin Townes Earle's first two releases suggest he may eventually measure up to the heritage of his father Steve Earle and namesake troubadour Townes Van Zandt. His sophomore effort, Midnight at the Movies, while still in thrall at times to an old-timey sound, feels more polished and fully formed than last year's The Good Life. Like his dad, he's infused a rock ethos into country-rock, though Justin favors more traditional (the honky-tonk "Poor Fool") and Bakersfield blends (hooker ode "Black Eyed Suzy"). From the title track's laconic, cabaret-pop paean to the torchy piano ballad "Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This" to his cover of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," Midnight demonstrates a more modern sensibility than The Good Life. There's not a filler track in the dozen, but the easy standout is "Mama's Eyes," whose title offers a sly joke on Justin's legacy. "I am my father's son, I've never known when to shut up," Justin confesses, acknowledging they've never seen eye-to-eye ("I'll be the first to admit I haven't tried") and have gone down the same sin-filled road (read: heroin addiction), before noting with a dash of superiority, "but I was younger then." - Chris Parker

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

Communion

(Yep Roc)

It starts with the cover - a bathrobe-clad middle-aged couple, holding a disturbingly hued drink that could very well be liquid Soylent Green, smiling a preternatural Stepford smile most associated with actors in job-training videos and the criminally insane. Inside are even more plastered smiles to accompany a sprawling two-disc set that loosely traces a path of redemption stretching from "Babel On" to "The Passover." I say "loosely" because the second disc features several songs from The Origin, Vol. 2 sessions, an abortive follow-up to 2005's Vol. 1, and has a more consistent tone and trajectory. While tracks like "Second Life Replay," "Pineal Gland Hotel" and "The Ego Delusion" play into the quasi-religious (in a Moody Blues way), laid-back '60s psych overtones that run rampant on the second disc, the first hosts rockers like the cowbell-bossing blues-rock boogie "Thrill Me," the billowing garage-psych "RA 88" and chunky rave-up "Distorted Child." For 15 years, this Swedish sextet has forged its own mod-prog sound. On this double album, it explores a broad dynamic landscape, from anthemic fist-shakers to stony grooves and even a folk cover (Nick Drake's "Fly"), although the new age-y sentiments of the second half get mushy. - Parker

Anni Rossi

Rockwell

(4AD)

Anni Rossi's full-length debut doesn't do much to distance itself from last year's Afton EP (five of the songs re-appear here in a new form), making Rockwell an expansion of an unpredictable yet reliable formula. Rossi still offers jarring vocal ticks and art-damaged pop that relies heavily on her instrument of choice, the viola. There are missteps, like the motorboat mouth noises on "Venice" or the awkward verse/chorus shift of "Deer Hunting Camp 17." But for the most part, Rossi continues to show why she is a fresh new indie-pop voice. "Machine" is a clacking, tapping burst of melody and warmth, while "Las Vegas" is a stripped and somber reflection. "Glaciers" offers up some of the jagged spunk found on Afton. But "Ecology" is the standout track here, if only because it offers a new direction for Rossi. Led by a synth that sounds like it came from Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," Rossi navigates her most straightforward piece of pop with amazing success. - Matt Whelihan

Return to Forever

Returns

(Eagle Rock)

If '70s fusion were a triangle, with the hard-rocking Mahavishnu Orchestra - Herbie Hancock's ultra-funky Mwandishi and Headhunters, and the jazzy, intricate Weather Report forming its points - Return to Forever would be right in the middle. This double disc, recorded on RTF's 2008 reunion tour, is a swirling hurricane of awesome. Keyboardist Chick Corea, guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White rip through marathon versions of tunes like "Vulcan Worlds," "Song to the Pharoah Kings," "Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant" and "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy," soloing like they're trying to launch themselves into space using nothing but the power of their flying fingers. It's not all amped-up prog-jazz, though. There are sections of delicate acoustic introspection, like a Di Meola/Corea duet that treads the line between flamenco and chamber music. Critically maligned at the time, fusion deserves reinvestigation, and this double disc showcases masters at work. - Phil Freeman

Elvis Perkins in Dearland

Elvis Perkins in Dearland

(XL)

These guys sound like dudes who'd get kicked out of a band for showing up drunk every night. It might not be true, but the way Elvis Perkins and his fellow musicians saunter through country, doo wop, pop and folk with a sense of inebriated ease suggests otherwise. I'm not saying these guys are missing chord changes and slurring words like some street-corner preacher: It's just that they have that four-drink familiarity of old friends playing at some dim bar they've performed in 100 times before. Don't let the Coldplay-covering-Wilco tone of "Shampoo" or "I'll Be Arriving," with its broken-wind-chime shuffle, fool you - this is a solid debut. Tracks like "Hey" and "I Heard Your Voice in Dresden" are celebratory show-closers, while "Hours Last Stand" and "How's Forever Been Baby" are the sort of weepy, whiskey-accompanying tunes everyone dreams to hear in a country dive bar. Convincing and casual, Elvis Perkins in Dearland's debut recalls the days of hard-drinking, heartbroken house bands that want nothing more than to play all night. - Whelihan

Los Fabulosos CadillacsÊ

La Luz del Ritmo

(Nacional)

After a six-year hiatus, Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs return with newfound energy. As on previous albums, most of the songwriting responsibilities rest on Gabriel Fernandez Capello (a.k.a.Vicentico) and Flavio Cianciarulo (a.k.a. Sr. Flavio). A highlight is the Spanish-language cover of the Clash's 1982 single "Should I Stay or Should I Go," played here tongue in cheek. The Cadillacs don't deny their Latin roots, which are evident on "Basta de llamarme asi," a slow ballad with a nortena vibe. The ska-esque "Flores" could easily have been covered by UB40 and is bound to become a live favorite, thanks to creative use of percussion and brass. The same goes for "Nosostros egoistas," a rocker with an early '90s feel.ÊThe cumbia "Padre nuestro" is a bit unconvincing, though. The band seems to be jumping the chicha (a Peruvian electric genre enjoying a revival in Latin America) bandwagon without putting too much thought into it. In spite of this weak moment, La Luz del Ritmo shows that the band has still got it after all these years. - Ernest BarteldesÊ

Propagandhi

Supporting Caste

(Smallman/G7)

Not many bands can pull off the strange dichotomy Propagandhi has built its career on. In a certain light, it's a group of goofy, hockey-loving Canucks that interject one-liners into punk songs, while in another, they're poignant and politically informed musicians who introduced a generation of punks to Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Propagandhi may have followed a strange path over the years - going from sunny skate-punk to speed-metal-influenced doom and gloom - but Supporting Caste manages to reference all of these career points. The band nods to its first two albums on the light-hearted "The Banger's Embrace" and "Human(E) Meat (The Flensing of Sandor Katz)," while the beefy riffing and moody respites of songs like "Night Letters" and "Without Love" recall the band's later material. It's a diverse batch of tracks that sound surprisingly logical together. Credit the political themes that pervade the album or the fact that these guys know how to pen a tune, but Supporting Caste is a summation of everything Propagandhi has done so far. - Whelihan

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