Art Brut, Joseph Arthur, David Bazan, Eddie Vedder and more

Art Brut channels the visceral elements of New Wave/Punk from a time when bands churned out clockwork, jerky Pop rhythms while frenetic frontmen delivered the goods in a half-shouted/half-spat/fully-sneered fashion. Over the past three albums, Art

Art Brut channels the visceral elements of New Wave/Punk from a time when bands churned out clockwork, jerky Pop rhythms while frenetic frontmen delivered the goods in a half-shouted/half-spat/fully-sneered fashion. Over the past three albums, Art Brut has perfectly emulated the style with a contemporary edge, like Billy Bragg fronting XTC in a Punk tribute to Blue Aeroplanes.

On the group’s latest, Brilliant! Tragic!, lead vocalist Eddie Argos sneers out his lyrical message of disaffected disgust and righteous outrage while the band pushes out an adrenalized soundtrack that teeters precariously on the edge of control. On “Clever Clever Jazz,” Argos spews out his words in an almost unhinged manner (“Clever clever jazzman, we’re working in a genre you don’t understand...”) as the band spot welds a kittery groove the suggests The Fall and Dictators in varying stylistic degrees but a consistently intense volume level. Things get poppier on “Lost Weekend,” where the melodicism and message are sweeter and more direct, although the solo at song’s end threatens to fly off the rails, and “Bad Comedian” follows a similar route, with a poppy intro, mad lyrical ranting and an increasingly propulsive accompaniment.

“Sexy Sometimes” features many of the same qualities, although Argos tempers his vocals down to a more subdued Ian Dury register, with a sound that suggests a collaboration between Gang of Four and Ennio Morricone.

Art Brut isn’t an evolutionary band of artistic dilettantes sharpening their musical swords on the world’s flint. They’re working class punks that have opinions on the planet’s ills and have worked out a nifty little formular to express their disgust or delight. Long may they do it justly and thusly.

Joseph Arthur, fairly fresh out of high school in his native Akron, took a trip to England and wound hanging around Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio, waiting for something to happen. Gabriel was looking for a bass player on a 1995 recording session and tapped Arthur for the job, even co-writing a song with the untested artist (the resulting album, Big Blue Ball, wouldn’t be released for another 13 years). Within a year, Arthur became the first artist signed to Gabriel’s Real World label which launched his career as a supremely talented and almost pathologically humble singer/songwriter.

There’s a sturdy delicacy to Arthur’s work, a quality that’s on full display on his latest, The Graduation Ceremony. Like other American singer/songwriters at least tangentially influenced by Nick Drake and Richard Thompson — Eef Barzelay, Richard Buckner and Lou Barlow come to mind — Arthur is a master of scuffed joy and triumphant melancholy, a guy who can find the dark cloud in any silver lining.

The Graduation Ceremony, Arthur’s first truly solo album since 2006’s Nuclear Daydream, begins with “Out on a Limb,” a simple acoustic guitar riff giving way to a baroque Pop arrangement and a gamboling Folk piano as Arthur croons lost love lyrics and bridges them with falsetto passages reminiscent of Jeff Buckley. “Horses” offers a lilting ode that seems more directly connected to Drake’s sad but somehow hopeful hymns, but laced through with Arthur’s wonderfully evocative sonic textures that populate the background like a howling wind that can only be sensed at a great distance. The gorgeous and powerful Folk/Pop anthem “Almost Blue” could be a lost Catherine Wheel demo, “Someone to Love” sidles along on a lovely recipe of acoustic guitar, Mellotron and bubbling synths, “Midwest” is a bit of Beatlesque magic and “Gypsy Faded” might just be the best end-of-relationship song ever written.

Arthur has an expressive voice that often taps into the same visceral core as Ian McCullough or Bono in their less histrionic moments and his lyrical simplicity and directness suggests James Taylor at his most linear and emotive. The Graduation Ceremony is Joseph Arthur folding all of his estimable musical experiences into a richly varied but thematically woven set of songs that are emotionally involving and musically engaging.

It could almost sound like an ill-conceived pitch for a high-concept film or doomed television show: “One is the keyboardist for one of the biggest and most ill-fated Rock bands in the history of music, the other is at best an obscure and yet fairly talented Blues guitarist. What kind of hijinx will they perpetrate together? Stay tuned for another hilarious episode of Ray and Roy.”

Thankfully, Ray Manzarek and Roy Rogers aren’t playing broad strokes for canned laughs on their second collaboration, Translucent Blues, they’re working a contemporary corner that’s as close to Prog, Pop and classic Rock as it is to Blues.

A case in point would be the gently ominous “River of Madness,” a noir-ish slice of L.A. storytelling that sounds like a lost David + David track as envisioned by Manzarek’s post-Doors solo persona and Rogers’ electric slide urban Folk troubadour guise. It’s compelling without being essential, like a addictively delicious dessert that you continue to devour long after you’ve had your fill. It’s hard not to think of The Doors when Manzarek bangs the keys on “Hurricane” and “Game of Skill,” particularly his work on Other Voices and Full Circle, the two vastly underrated albums that came after Jim Morrison’s unfortunate Paris bath.

In so many ways, Manzarek’s greatest crime has been in surviving Morrison and trying to carve out a new sonic identity while possessing the strong creative presence that actually propelled The Doors to Rock‘s greatest heights. His straight solo albums have been mercilessly slagged, which may be why he’s done so many collaborations. His work with Rogers is perhaps the most interesting, from the jazzy lope “Kick” to the rollicking Blues nod of “Fives and Ones” to the Dire Straits Brit Pop swagger of “Blues in My Shoes.”

Manzarek haters, and they are legion, won’t be swayed by Translucent Blues, but the fact is that 40 years of Doors royalties have allowed him to do whatever the hell he’s wanted to do, so climb aboard and enjoy the ride as much as he obviously does, or go pound that jealous hatred up your ass sideways. The choice is yours.

For nearly a decade, David Bazan proselytized for his spiritual beliefs as Pedro the Lion, and the resultant brilliant, often challenging albums earned Bazan a boatload of adoring fans and a press kit crammed with glowing press. Five years ago, he retired PTL and began performing under his own name; not long after, he had a messy break-up with God, detailed in his first solo full length, 2009’s vibrant and chaotic Curse Your Branches.

With Strange Negotiations, Bazan continues to ratchet up his Indie Rock intensity (“People,” “Eating Paper”) while focusing his jaundiced eye on exterior as well as interior concerns. On opener “Wolves at the Door,” Bazan rails against the rapacious corporate attitude that has crippled America and our tacit allowance of it, but he doesn’t miss an opportunity to break a commandment and piss off his former employer (“You’re a Goddamn fool/and I love you”). While Bazan’s philosophy has shifted, Strange Negotiation shows that his heartfelt message and ability to set it to a compelling soundtrack are completely intact.

Reviewing the current volumes of Robert Pollard’s Pop/Rock Encyclopedia Britsonica has become an exercise in a similar methodology as Bob from Dayton’s own dilemma; saying the same thing in a slight different yet infinitely clever manner. Pollard is endlessly inventive and boundlessly prolific — who else can you name that can write, record and release more than three albums in a calendar year, all containing compositions with the grandiose scope and vision of Quadrophenia, often within a single two-minute song?

There are subtle differences between Pollard’s solo pieces and the works he produces with Boston Spaceships and his other quasi-band structures (Guided by Something or other, I’m told). On his own, without obvious contributors, Pollard gives free rein to the Pete Townshend-driven angel on his shoulder constantly, and Lord of the Birdcage is the latest example (and possibly not the last one in 2011).

In a little over 33 minutes, Lord of the Birdcage finds Pollard in full Townshend mode, producing an album that feels every bit as sprawling and involving as The Who’s best and brightest conceptual work without a hint of story or theme or actual connective tissue. In fact the only thread running through Pollard’s work is an uncanny ability to link unrelated songs in a fascinating sonic fashion that gives them the impression of flowing from one to the next.

Pollard touches on Glam and Prog with the roiling Rock stutter of “You Sold Me Quickly” and the boogie nod of “Ribbon of Fat” while going all Quadrophenic on the expansively beautiful “Silence Before Violence.” He slyly acknowledges the feelings of non-believers when he opens and closes “Garden Smarm” with a weary “Not him again …,” which frames the song’s stated message of “You can’t challenge forward progress.”

That bit of Art Pop theater is followed by the lovely “In a Circle,” an acoustic Baroque Pop waltz that further cements Pollard’s musical process and details our mundane cyclical lives; “We stand in a circle, we move in a circle/Timed, wounded and bruised like a logical bow, hands down/In routine exercise, in inconstant reverie, in makeshift Comfort Suites, in nine o’clock meetings.” From that banal circadian rhythm, we make something approximating our places in the world and Pollard makes himself the poet laureate of boozer Rock and publishes brooding and brilliant tomes with infectiously wonderful soundtracks.

On a structural level, all of the songs on Lord of the Birdcage represent a new way of working for Pollard, as he took a dozen poems that he’d written (a form clearly different from his lyric writing) and worked the music around the words, the exact opposite of his typical process. It’s an interesting exercise, as Pollard’s poetry may be even more insightfully hallucinatory than his normal lyrics, perhaps since he’s unrestrained by an actual musical blueprint that requires him to construct his word plays to fit accordingly. However he managed it, Lord of the Birdcage is still Pollard at his best. But aren’t they all?

Sure, you know him best as the powerhouse frontman of Pearl Jam but imagine what would happen if Eddie Vedder strapped on Tiny Tim’s favorite instrument and came up with a hybrid of the Grunge he helped champion and the Tin Pan Alley/vaudeville tunes that have typically been associated with the Hawaiian guitar. That’s the odd set-up for Vedder’s solo album, Ukulele Songs.

Maybe it’s the amazing success that Vedder has enjoyed with Pearl Jam over the past two decades, or maybe it’s the freedom he’s tasted on his outside projects away from the band. Whatever inspired it, Vedder is clearly exploring an entirely new avenue with Ukulele Songs, although it’s not impossibly hard to hear these compositions emanating from Pearl Jam or one of his more traditionally Rock-centric projects. The songs on Ukulele Songs offer plenty of Vedder’s stocks-in-trade, from patented vocal quiver to heart-on-sleeve lyrics to soul-searched reflection.

What Ukulele Songs offers in addition is, well, ukulele and lots of it. There are times when Vedder actually sounds like he’s channeling the spirit of the guys who wrote and performed on the instrument in the early part of the century but there are more that seem like slightly re-envisioned and executed Pearl Jam songs. Ukulele Songs is an interesting diversion and effective exercise for Eddie Vedder, and his ardent fan base will embrace this with the same passion that he’s invested in the recording, but I suspect they and we will all welcome the return of electricity and percussion to his repertoire next time around.

With the rise of the singer/songwriter and like-minded bands in southern California in the ’70s, few names carried as much weight as J.D. Souther’s when it came to a writing credit under a song. His compositions wound up as timeless translations in the hands of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor, among others, and he collaborated with all of them as well, creating one of the era’s most potent and enduring songbooks. Oddly enough, Souther himself barely made a ripple as an artist himself; his own albums sold in negligible amounts, as did those with his attempt at band membership, the Souther Hillman Furay Band. His one brush with commercial success as a performer was his 1979 hit single “You’re Only Lonely” and the not-quite Top 40 album that spawned it.

Natural History isn’t likely to reverse that trend, but Souther’s success as a songwriter, much like John Hiatt, has allowed him to pursue whatever path he’s chosen as an artist. On Natural History, Souther takes a crack at rearranging and translating his own unique versions of some of his most well known compositions. His piano/acoustic guitar/coronet spin on “The Sad Cafe” has the feel of one of Lyle Lovett’s mournful ballads while “Only the Lonely” doesn’t stray impossibly far from his original beyond its considerably slowed tempo. “New Kid in Town” lopes along like a song pouring from a border cantina and his spare renditions of “Prisoner in Disguise” and “Best of My Love” are haunting and powerful.

It’s difficult to understand why Souther’s own albums have failed to attract the same fans that pushed the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt into the platinum strata. His voice hovers in the Glenn Frey range and his performing style lines up with the best of his peer group; if there’s a ding on his resume, it might be that he tends to polish the edges from songs that could stand a little necessary roughness. Natural History offers an alternate vision of Souther’s brilliant output even as it recognizes that other people’s interpretations are likely going to continue to pay the bulk of his bills.

There’s nothing unusual about a new band’s early works exhibiting a certain schizophrenic quality as they establish their creative process and reflect the influences they’ve absorbed. Simon Dawes clearly fit that bill, as co-frontmen Blake Mills and Taylor Goldsmith (whose respective middle names christened the band), filled their full length debut, 2006’s Carnivore, and various EPs with Spoon-like Pop/Punk translations of influences as varied as Te Kinks, David Bowie and Big Star.

When Mills departed in 2008, Goldsmith clipped the band name in half, to simply Dawes, and began concentrating on his folkier inclinations, everything from CSNY, Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt to Gram Parsons, John Prine and Jackson Browne. Dawes’ debut, 2009’s North Hills, was a brilliant evocation of ’70s Folk Rock reverence shot through with contemporary energy and relevance.

Dawes’ sophomore album, Nothing is Wrong, is an extension and refinement of Mills’ influences and the Americana direction outlined on North Hills. It’s also an improbable advancement of its predecessor, from the Parsons-fronts-Crazy Horse soothing sting of “Time Spent in Los Angeles” and “If I Wanted Someone,” to the Dylanesque lope of “Million Dollar Bill” to the gentle Jackson Browne whisper breeze of “Moon in the Water.” And the album’s closer, the emotionally wrought “A Little Bit of Everything,” is a gorgeous, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful core sample of life, and quite possibly the best song that Browne and Warren Zevon never wrote.

The next phase of Dawes’ evolution could be more dramatic — they’ve served as Robbie Robertson’s backing band for his live dates supporting How to Become Clairvoyant — but Nothing is Wrong is a giant leap forward completely on their own and quite possibly one of the year’s best albums.

It’s a fairly common musical truism that when an artist releases a self-titled album as a debut, it’s intended as an introduction, but when it comes later in the catalog, it serves as a declaration that the album is the best representation of the artist’s intention. For Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to title any or all of his six albums over the past decade with his given name, as each of them has perfectly reflected his creative persona and his unique spin on his diverse influences, including Nick Drake, Prefab Sprout and the Beach Boys and styles as diverse as Psychedelia, Brazilian Tropicalia and ’60s Pop. Even Lerche’s soundtrack for Dan in Real Life could have gotten away with sporting his name (although the movie required a more appropriate title).

The beauty of Lerche’s catalog is that even as he experiments with various sonic guises (the stripped back Folk of Faces Down, the Jazz swing of Duper Sessions, the Rock pulse of Phantom Punch), the resulting sound is always filtered straight through Lerche’s creative prism.

Although Lerche employs stylistic elements he has exhibited in the past, his eponymous sixth album is more cohesively in line with his early Folk-tinged work. On this concise ten-song set, Lerche suggests everyone from Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello (“Go Right Ahead,” “Coliseum Town”) to Jonathan Richman (“Private Caller”) to Nick Drake (“Red Flags”) to David Bowie (“Living Dangerously”), but they are merely ghosts that inhabit Lerche’s beautifully haunted studio.

Sondre Lerche doesn’t so much reflect his influences as refract them and that quality, along with his stellar songwriting skills, marks him as one of contemporary music’s true originals.

The Postelles’ eponymous debut has had something of a torturous existence over the past couple of years. The New York quartet formed in high school and eventually attracted the attention of Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., who produced their first album and helped them secure a Capitol Records contract. Inexplicably, the label sat on the album even as songs from the set were being licensed for movie trailers (How Do You Know) and television shows (Vampire Diaries, Raising Hope, 90210) and their videos were causing a stir on MTV and Fuse. The band finally negotiated an end to their contract and amazingly got their album back, paving the way for its release through  +One, close to two years after its completion.

It’s not hard to see why Hammond was drawn to the Postelles. There is a definite streak of Strokes running through the band’s sound, but there’s also a soulful Pop subtext that is reminiscent of the way Marshall Crenshaw viewed Buddy Holly through his contemporary ’80s kaleidoscope. The Postelles vibrate with a similar hyperkinetic simplicity; the band’s first single, “123 Stop,” offers an energetic hipsway Pop take on Holly by way of the Ramones, “Can’t Stand Still” shivers with Crenshaw’s Pop intensity and melodicism updated to reflect next generation standards and “Hold On” marries an early Velvet Underground vibe to a Motown Soul/Pop undercurrent.

The Postelles may be getting out of the gate a little late, but their first album reveals a band of young veterans who effortlessly funnel the history of Rock into their vastly entertaining bounce house of Pop.

How one feels about Black Country Communion depends largely on their love or lack thereof for the Hard Rock legacy of the ’70s and its inherent descending hierarchy. If Them Crooked Vultures could be viewed as the new millennium’s Led Zeppelin, Black Country Communion could be the next generation Deep Purple, an analogy heightened by the presence of John Paul Jones in the former and Glenn Hughes in the latter. Both are supergroups of a fashion, and BCC isn’t lacking for star power; Hughes is an elder statesman with an illustrious band history (Trapeze, Deep Purple, Hughes/Thrall, among others), session career and solo résumé, Joe Bonamassa is young in age but a storied contemporary Blues guitarist with a solo career stretching back to age 8, keyboardist Derek Sherinian is renowned for his amazing work with Dream Theater and drummer Jason Bonham is bona fide next generation royalty as the son of Led Zeppelin heartbeat John Bonham.

There are certainly touches of Zep in BCC’s approach, on both their eponymous 2010 debut and their aptly titled sophomore album 2; acoustic appointments and Middle Eastern flourishes (“The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall,” “Save Me”), thunderous guitar romps (“Smokestack Woman”) and ethereal textures within and throughout.

The thing that saves BCC from being little more than a slavishly faceless acolyte of ’70s Hard Rock mimicry is in allowing the creative personalities of its individual components to shine through. Bonamassa’s crunching riffs anchor the band while his guitar identity carves the air with authority on his solos, Hughes understands the nuance involved in the most numbskull Rock and fashions a bracing pulse, Sherinian is Prog/Hard Rock personified behind the keys and Bonham can bash out a hammer-on-anvil beat or craft a delicately woven rhythm that is both solid timing and harmonic melody.

Lyrically, all the tales of the Pleasuredome and Hadrian’s Wall seem like dated ’70s Prog references, but Black Country Communion compensates for occasional lapses in storytelling judgment with an engaging and supple Hard Rock soundtrack that manages to sound vintage and vibrant at the same time.

Goth’s soundscape would be ash gray rather than jet black without Peter Murphy’s essential contributions, as his Bauhaus/Dali’s Car/solo influence has blown through music’s generations with the constancy of the jet stream. On Ninth, his eighth studio album (apparently, he’s counting his 2001 live album) and first album in seven years, Murphy returns to the visceral and immediate AltRock swell of 1990’s Deep for a set that rumbles with veteran authority and bristles with modern energy.

From the towering swagger of “Velocity Bird” to the majestic and moody melodicism of “Seesaw Sway” to the soaring Goth blueprint of “I Spit Roses” to the hypnotic Thin Black Duke balladry of “Never Fall Out,” Murphy and perfectly-matched producer David Baron construct Ninth as a solid yet elegant sonic fortress that reinforces Murphy’s legendary status as Goth’s architect and proves his relevance to the coming crop of Darkwave wannabes with the crucial lesson that greatness is more than eyeliner and attitude.

Andrew Kenny became a beloved minor Indie Rock deity with the Synth Pop quietude of American Analog Set, but he was simultaneously stockpiling stripped back Folk tunes which ultimately informed Kenny’s next generation Americana Pop experiment, The Wooden Birds. The group’s 2009 debut, Magnolia, was subversively understated, Kenny’s singer/songwriter vision of AmAnSet’s edge of consciousness methodology.

On the Birds’ sophomore effort, Two Matchsticks, Kenny, AAS cohort Leslie Sisson and new addition Matt Pond flesh out Magnolia’s bones but maintain a hushed acoustic groove that suggests Iain Matthews, Lindsey Buckingham and Joe Pernice collaborating on demos for a Jimmy Webb tribute. One of TwoMatchstick’s distinguishing factors is the increased profile of Sisson, who provides a Sam Phillips vibe to her contributions (“A Lie”), but Kenny ever-so-slightly bumps up the Birds’ sonic ambition, offering engaging melodies and bouncy rhythms to counter the consistency of the tempo (“Folly Cub,” “Criminals Win”), while drawing on their proven qualities — great songwriting, reserved confidence and a reverence for the Folk/Roots sources that inspire them.