The Hawk Is Howling
(Matador) Post-Young Team, Mogwai has become easier to take for granted. These Scottish lads are so painfully great at what they do - insinuating various musical styles into their serpentine, instrumental drift and roar - that every successive record fails to move the bar any higher. Mogwai effortlessly compresses creeping horror and outright loveliness, which is what made the inclusion of "Auto Rock" in the big-screen version of Miami Vice such a brilliant aesthetic choice on some studio hack's part. The Hawk Is Howling is no different, really: Emotional post-rock peaks and valleys come and go, marks are struck hard then slowly turned away from and gentle undulating strums explode ever-so-gradually into bone-rattling thunderstorms. Typically, there's a lot to love: the phosphorescent, gloaming glide of "Thank You Space Expert"; the twinkling keyboards lighting up "Local Authority," with filtered guitars yawning off in the outer distance; "The Sun Smells Too Loud" pitting Modest Mouse/Pavement chordal insouciance against distorted reverberations and what's probably the most insiduous-yet-indominable bass line anybody's written this year. It's an extended Caribbean vacation for the ear; it's more than enough, and yet somehow, it isn't. - Ray Cummings
The Living and the Dead
(Anti-) This is the record you play for your friends passing out on your floor after a long night of ill-advised debauchery. It's so soothing, the last person awake won't even be able to get up and switch off the stereo. Arising from experience and life stories, acclaimed singer-songwriter Jolie Holland's songs were compiled on the road across North America and Europe to make up her fourth album, The Living and the Dead. With songs crossing folk and indie-rock, Holland's timeless vocal style gives the record a sort-of speakeasy atmosphere. Veteran guitarist Marc Ribot (who's played with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello), indie-rock favorite M. Ward and drummer Rachel Blumberg (who's played with everybody from Bright Eyes to the Decemberists) helped out on The Living and the Dead. The timelessness and simplicity is utterly refreshing, while Holland's voice is classic and beautiful. - Wes Dodd
(K) If you have little kids, then you know: It's hard finding music in common. Rare is the album with kid-centric silliness and G-rated references that's preserved enough indie cred to keep Mom and Dad from rolling up the windows at all the red lights. You can't just play They Might Be Giants' children's albums over and over. You need variety. And so Kimya Dawson has found yet another place to shine. Not only is the Juno-soundtrack star and co-founder of the Moldy Peaches a new mom herself (to a toddler playfully named Panda Bear) but her primitive and playful anti-folk comes fully equipped to do what's right for both camps.
The tracks on Alphabutt are, by turns, silly ("Little Monster Babies") and scatological (the title track - how could it be that "F is for fart, G is for gorilla-fart" and "H is for hairy gorilla-fart"?), heartfelt ("I Love You Sweet Baby," "Happy Home") and inspirational ("Pee-Pee on the Potty," "Keep on Writing"). Panda Bear makes several cameos, a natural addition to the clamor of toys and kazoos. But adult-minded humor is scattered throughout to keep the grown-ups interested ("Bobby-O" is a song about the failed "skinny younger brother of Fabio"). What's really special here, though, is how everything serves to make even the most battle-hardened listener regress to a time when it was just fine to fart, giggle, then try to push one more out just for sport. A little progressive proselytizing - one of Dawson's fortes - caps Alphabutt ("Sunbeams and Some Beans") with a fairy-tale diatribe against corporate hoarding. Deep stuff for the booger-eaters, but they've gotta start somewhere. -ÊDan Harkins
(Yep Roc) While retaining some of the dreamy, psychedelic lean-ings of their prior six albums, this is easily Mercury Rev's most offbeat and experimental album, diving into ambient electronica and stashing the guitars in favor of analog and digital synths. The band's cinematic, orchestral predilections are channeled into gently undulating numbers. Indeed, the spacey, animatronic sound is more suited to Saturday Night Skate at the ice rink than typically acid-washed saucer-eyed wonder. As such, it feels somewhat featureless, if sometimes vibrant.
The passages are well-knit, showing none of the seams, but the music functions better as an album than as individual tracks. For that reason, it's probably best suited for rabid fans than casual enthusiasts. Snowflake Midnight's pacing is particularly languid, a product of three tracks - a third of the album - that stretch to six minutes and beyond without adequate payoff. The sputtering beats of "People Are So Unpredictable" swell to a climax halfway through the song then wind down with three minutes of ambient chill-out music. While occasionally interesting, it's not particularly engaging. Mercury Rev also is making a mostly instrumental 11-song album, Strange Attractor, available via free download from its website, mercuryrev.com. - Chris Parker
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Jingle All the Way
(Rounder) Christmas albums can be dicey affairs for some folks, like grumpy, heathen/nonbelievers and/or people who want a CD to sound as engaging in July as it does in December. Fusion wizard Bela Fleck's Jingle All the Way is such an album. While it has the prerequisite cheery Holiday Spirit interlaced amid the 0s and 1s, Jingle features inspired, occasionally zany interpretations of Christmas classics. Banjoist Fleck treats assorted holiday favorites like many jazz musicians should treat standards - as vehicles for improvisation and opportunities to "expand" a song to new possibilities. There's an amazing variety to Jingle, from the pensive, spacious elegance of "The Christmas Song" to the gleeful, brilliantly fluid "Linus and Lucy" (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) to the cool-cat swing of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," featuring bucolic banjo and the bear-hug baritone sax of Jeff Coffin. Not to neglect our Jewish friends - the klezmer-inspired "Hanukkah Waltz" features searing, John Coltrane-like clarinet by Andy Statman. With this album, every day can be - dare I suggest it - one of … those holidays. Fleck has blessed us all, everyone! - Mark Keresman
Milton Nascimento & Jobim Trio
(EMI) The late Brazilian composer and arranger Antonio Carlos Jobim once said that Milton Nascimento was one of the best interpreters of his music, but somehow it took more than a decade for the legendary singer-songwriter to finally make a record mostly dedicated to the bossa nova pioneer's songbook. Backed by a band formed by two of the maestro's heirs (Paulo and Daniel Jobim, his son and grandson) plus drummer Paulo Braga and bassist Rodrigo Villa, Nascimento not only remakes bossa nova-era classics but also breathes new life into them. One memorable track is a reinvented version of "Chega de Saudade" that begins with a train-like beat that converts back to a more traditional bossa format during the chorus.
Nascimento and Daniel Jobim (whose voice has an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather's) share the lead vocals on Vinicius de Moraes' "Medo de Amar," "Brigas Nunca Mais" and "Dias Azuis," a gentle Daniel Jobim-penned ballad that previously appeared on Lee Ritenour's Smoke N' Mirrors. Another notable moment is "Cais," a classic Nascimento tune, in which Daniel Jobim and Paulo Braga showcase their chemistry during a solo. Novas Bossas is not exactly a groundbreaking disc, but it's nevertheless highly enjoyable - even if you don't understand what the words are all about. - Ernest Barteldes
(Island) Being colleagues with a few "poptimists" and no stranger to aural glucose myself, I've entered many debates on why so many of the less pop-inclined critics are willing to get behind imports like Annie, Robyn and Javiera Mena but still disdain our homegrown Ashlees and Pinks. It probably shook up a few indie-rockers when Annie Lilia Berge Strand's Heartbeat, still unreleased in the U.S. at the time, topped Pitchfork's angularity-favoring year-end singles list. Maybe Annie was less outwardly annoying to the indie press because she's not image-driven or sensational. Because she's not American or particularly famous, her visibility is lower and people can control their sugar intake; it's easier to tune her out, and there's not much temptation to knee-jerk hate her. Then there's the comparative modesty of the music: Compare the production on Anniemal, her well-received 2005 debut, to the overload of the average L.A. Reid signing. Anniemal strove for pleasant ear-bud bounce, not change-costumes-after-every-song-on-tour candy. Some found that more palatable. I was kinda bored.
Don't Stop is more my style: The singing's more projected and less reliant on breathy vagueness. The beats are still child's play but faster now, and occasional new-wave guitar flashes(!) bring her closer to the New Order of dreams. "Loco" and "Bad Times" have grooves that rattle rather than putter formally. And the delicious Fredrik Saroea duet, "I Can't Let Go," actually sounds like Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go." Maybe she's graduating to headphones after all. - Dan Weiss
Cold War Kids
Loyalty to Loyalty
(Downtown) This Class of 2006 buzz band went through the usual stages of hipster holiness: blogger adoration, blogger backlash, accusations of being covertly Christian and, finally, rejection. But the Long Beach, California quartet's debut, Robbers & Cowards, holds up better than other graduates of the era, like, say, Tapes 'n Tapes - mostly because piano-pounding frontman Nathan Willett rolls his voice over Cold War Kids' songs with zero subtlety and a fondness for fizzy falsetto spurts. It gives the music a sense of wild-ride recklessness that does tire squeals all over their second album, Loyalty to Loyalty. Willett even admits to giving in to such rash impulses on the CD's best song, "Something Is Not Right With Me," a room-shaking rocker plastered with the Kids' trademark heaving piano and reverb-stacked guitar. He pauses for some painting and clockwatching here and there, but on breathless and unruly tunes like "Every Valley Is Not a Lake" and "On the Night My Love Broke Through," he's burning rubber all over the place. - Michael Gallucci
These Arms Are Snakes
Tail Swallower & Dove
(Suicide Squeeze) When These Arms Are Snakes first hit the scene, they brought a surprising variance to the post-hardcore genre thanks to guitarist Ryan Frederiksen's disjointed take on the big riffing of Jimmy Page and singer Steve Snere's sensuous and snappy delivery. Unfortunately, their sophomore album, Easter, failed to expand upon this formula, and the result was a tiresome effort full of songs that merely sounded like b-sides from their debut. Maybe I wasn't the only person to notice this shortcoming because the band's latest, Tail Swallower & Dove, successfully embraces many new tones. "Woolen Hair" starts off in typical TAAS fashion, with a shattered, screeching riff and counter-striking drum patterns, but then Snere comes in with a sort of strained croon instead of his usual clipped bleats. The chorus, too, shows a vocally adroit Snere going for the "sing" over the "shout." Musically, we're treated to some new angles here. "Prince Squid" is led by an atypical, stunted drum beat and start-stop guitar, while "Red Line Season" hosts a liquid guitar line as opposed to the band's normal chopped style, and "Long and Lonely Step" is led by a fantastic high-end bass riff showing TAAS hasn't succumbed to predictability just yet. - Matt Whelihan