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Zach Hill, Jaguar Love, The Baseball Project, And More 

Jaguar Love

Take Me to the Sea (Matador)

I was bummed last year when two of the Pacific Northwest's best bands, Pretty Girls Make Graves and the Blood Brothers, called it quits. Sure, they were both a bit past their prime, but they still possessed a unique and eclectic sound. Now comes Jaguar Love, a group consisting of Pretty Girls Make Graves guitarist Jay Clark (drums/bass/keys) and the Blood Brothers' Johnny Whitney (singer-keyboardist) and Cody Votolato (guitar/bass). Together, the trio has recorded an album that at points sounds like what you would expect: a more pop version of the Blood Brothers. Take "Bats Over the Pacific Ocean," for example. With its acoustic guitar, tambourine stomp, simple piano line and straightforward melody, it sounds like a song from an established - and excellent - indie band. Elsewhere, the filthy-strut-through-a-honky-tonk tone of "The Man With the Plastic Suns" and the haunted-house techno/hardcore hybrid "Humans Evolve Into Skyscrapers" also show songwriters who still have plenty of room to move, once released from the confines of their former bands. - Matt Whelihan

Zach Hill

Astrological Straits (Ipecac)

The double-disc solo debut by Hella's maniacal drummer Zach Hill is everything the experimental noise rocker's pedigree promises and more. His Sacramento heritage, in particular, shines in Day-Glo from trippy acid-psych undercurrents to his torrential percussion. The morphing arrangements, carnival vocals and astounding drum technique suggest Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick," as rendered by illustrator Ralph Steadman in King Crimson colors. Indeed, while drum solos typically generate boredom faster than C-Span, Hill's supple dynamics mesh perfectly with the careening, undulating roar created by his many co-conspirators (including Les Claypool, Marnie Stern, Chino Moreno and !!!'s Tyler Pope, among others). Perhaps most surprising is the profusion of melody and quirky, light-giving moments (such as the early break in "Street People" featuring nothing but crickets) Hill weaves into the maelstrom. Some of the songs are half-conceptual; "Momentum" sputters, writhing from a mechanistic break beat into a chunky boogie and back, as if struggling to maintain focus. It's not a problem for the listener. Despite the nearly cacophonous jumble of guitar noise, spindly samples and Hill's cymbal-heavy rumble, there's a brash, arresting allure that reconfigures your musical framework, like really good modern art. It's hard to look away - and peering in simply pulls you further into the rabbit hole. The second disc features a single 33-minute piano-and-percussion excursion with Marco Benevento. - Chris Parker

The Baseball Project

Volume One: Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails (Yep Roc)

This side group, featuring a small team of indie-rock pioneers (including the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck), could've easily been a checked swing. But the Baseball Project manages to turn these 13 songs about the national pastime into a ground-rule double. The quartet's '80s-style power-pop jangle ranges from general musings on the game ("Past Time") to name-checking guys like Campy Campaneris, Harvey Haddix and other forgotten players. Best: the crowd sing-along "Ted Fucking Williams" (supposedly, the legendary slugger used to yell "I'm Ted Fucking Williams, and I'm the greatest hitter in baseball" during batting practice) and "The Yankee Flipper," about Eddie Vedder's pal (and former Tribe pitcher) Jack McDowell, who once gave the finger to New York fans after being pulled from a game the day after a long night of drinking. Party like a rock star, dude. - Michael Gallucci

The Stills

Oceans Will Rise (Arts & Crafts)

The gold skull that dominates the cover art on the Stills' latest album isn't the only thing that brings pirates to mind. That's not to say that the Montreal band sounds like the drunken "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum" brand of pirates. Rather, the lyrical content touches on cryptic themes that you might associate with dangerous buccaneers - namely, a land of darkness, whirling dervishes and wind that blows "a thousand leagues under the sea." The music that accompanies these unsettling words is equally chilling, with squiggly guitars, drums that thump as heavily as a dinosaur's steps and distraught vocals that evoke the mood of awakening from a nightmare. Yet, just as some of these songs are about to reach an ominous peak, the Stills sneak into a different key or begin a chorus that oozes with hope. The bridge on "Being Here" is a staunch departure from the song's tone, making you wonder how its glimmer of optimism fits alongside the hurt and disappointment that seeps through the rest of the song. It's as if the Stills see the danger that lies ahead in our ever-evolving world, but they vow to prevail. A good pirate never gives in. - Danielle Sills

Sugarland

Love on the Inside (Mercury Nashville)

Jennifer Nettles is a torn woman. Sugarland's radiant focal point can sing about a ghostly correspondence one moment and then pen a hook-up love letter to hard-ass troubadour Steve Earle the next. On the country duo's third album, Love on the Inside, Nettles and guitarist Kristian Bush bring their usual mix of pop and twang to a set of tunes that bank on the push-and-pull of Nettles' commitments and impulses. She's a smart songwriter and a great singer, and as she proved on last year's "Stay" video, she's also a star in the making. So Love on the Inside pumps up the arena rock this time around (no big surprise, after Nettles' chart-topping collaboration with Bon Jovi), leaving the occasional mandolin-strummed ballad to fall behind the trail of big drums and even bigger guitars. Still, Nettles and Bush are best when singing about the little things, like kicking back ("All I Want to Do") and celebrating new love ("We Run") - the rare times when Nettles has a little peace of mind. - Gallucci

Fred Eaglesmith

Tinderbox (Lonesome Day)

As a 50-year-old Canadian folk/roots singer-songwriter with barely a dozen-and-a-half albums to his credit and a cultish fan base, Fred Eaglesmith is perhaps the most unlikely object of adulation in the music industry. He's the very definition of a songwriter's songwriter, with his work covered by a dizzying gamut of artists (Cowboy Junkies, Toby Keith, Todd Snider, Mary Gauthier, Dar Williams, Kasey Chambers). His professional friends have even formally paid tribute to him on The Songs of Fred Eaglesmith, featuring Jay Bennett, Slaid Cleves, Gurf Morlix and many more. Eaglesmith's appeal is broad because he cuts across genres without a thought of artistic constancy, preferring to work in as many directions as humanly possible - an ethic that has deservedly earned him comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. On Tinderbox, his 17th album, Eaglesmith taps into a vibe he refers to as "alternative gospel," which emerges from his unique filter - a fascinating mix of Tom Waits' bohemian folk rumble, T Bone Burnett's contemporary roots traditionalism and John Prine's poignantly wry humor. Accentuating his gravelly vocal textures and swinging a groove that combines shambling looseness and gnat's-ass precision, Eaglesmith steams along on "Sweet Corn" like Waits in the front pew of a Pentecostal church, while "Chain Gang" finds him shuddering and shaking like Springsteen fronting latter-day Talking Heads. Tinderbox is another amazing example of what Eaglesmith does best (which is just about everything) and a clear contender for year-end honors. - Brian Baker

Golden Animals

Free Your Mind and Win a Pony (Happy Parts)

This couple (he's from Baltimore, she's from Sweden) met in Brooklyn and now call the hippie haven of Joshua Tree, California, home. And on their debut album, they soak in patchouli juice and roll around in fields of hemp, all the while channeling Los Angeles '60s rockers like the Doors and Love. Free Your Mind and Win a Pony occasionally slips into a scuzzy blues vibe (sorta like those other guitar-and-drums duos the Black Keys and White Stripes) that offsets the stoned desert haze of Tommy Eisner and Linda Beecroft's freak-folk songs. But the Golden Animals aren't mere imitators of Jim Morrison's growls and CCR's swamp-guitar riffs. "The Steady Roller" and "Queen Mary (The Flop)" coast along their own grooves, albeit ones spiked with throwback psychedelia and coated in dry-mouth tales about easy riders. - Gallucci Human Highway Moody Motorcycle (Suicide Squeeze) "The Sound" is almost too perfect of a song. First come the lazy and comfortable guitar swing and handclaps, then the bubble-gum harmonies and strikingly poignant hip-hop beat, and finally a steel-drum closing. If you had to guess what a collaboration between Islands' Nick Thorburn and Canadian singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie would sound like, your inner jukebox might crank up something like this sunny '70s folk-pop-inspired gem. And while the rest of the album never mines anything quite as valuable, it also doesn't disappoint. "What World" is simple California pop, "My Beach" is full of back-porch charm and Crosby, Stills and Nash vocal lines, and "I Wish I Knew" waltzes like a Paul Simon ballad to close out the album. If those comparisons sound a bit lofty, it's because Guthrie and Thorburn are talented songwriters who are not only able to craft memorable melody after memorable melody, but also know just what instrumentation will perfectly complement each of their creations. - Matt Whelihan

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