Joseph Arthur & the Lonely Astronauts 

Let's Just Be (Lonely Astronaut Records)

Framing Let's Just Be as Joseph Arthur's breakthrough release hardly does the music justice. Though a talented musician, the Akron-born singer-songwriter has sometimes gotten in his own way, penning overwrought lyrics and busy arrangements. But clearly last year's tour -- Arthur's first time with a band -- changed some things. Dramatically.

Backed by a sextet, Arthur turns in a stunning tour de force that leaves no path unexplored: from "Diamond Ring," the country-glam opener where the Stones hang with T. Rex, to the 20-minute psychedelic extravaganza "Lonely Astronaut," to the mournful, Eastern-tinged drone of "Star Song." Some, such as the garage-punk raver "Cocaine Feet," hardly sound like him at all. Who knew a chamber-pop guy could party like this?

With recorded snippets of room conversation, it's apparent the album was recorded live, lending the music a crackling energy. Those white-hot performances tie the whole enterprise together, helping make this one of the year's most surprising releases.

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