Albums Reviewed by Alex Bieler and Ben Speggen
The Shins, Lost in the Trees, Yellow Ostrich, and Justin Townes Earle -- one of these albums got a 5-star review. Read on to find out which one.
Port of Morrow
From the very beginning, The Shins was essentially a solo project for front man James Mercer After spending some time with Broken Bells, The Shins return from their five-year hiatus with "Port of Morrow." No matter what incarnation he's in, every Mercer project takes on some variation of his sound. "Morrow" seems stuck between the airy, acoustic pop of past Shins work and the electronic experimentation of Broken Bells. Lead single "Simple Song" mixes the two well, displaying a more polished production than the albums before, but much of the album alternates between the two. "September" sounds like a throwback to the days of "Oh, Inverted World," while the title track could have been ripped straight from Broken Bells. "Port of Morrow" is a solid album, but with Mercer trying to go in two different directions at once, it's hard to move forward.
Lost in the Trees
A Church That Fits Our Needs
For Lost in the Trees' bandleader Ari Picker, "A Church That Fits Our Needs" marks not only the group's sophomore effort, but also a tribute. The album revolves around the suicide of Picker's mother back in 2009, shortly after the release Lost in the Trees first full-length effort. No stranger to darkly personal subject material stemming from an abusive past, Picker dedicates each song to his mother's memory, even adorning the album cover with her photo. Drawing from Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich, Picker infuses each song with multiple layers, employing blends of swirling strings, brass, and harp in his unique classical-folk hybrid. The album swerves from unsettling to heart wrenching at every turn, remaining beautiful throughout. Picker's therapeutic tribute isn't the easiest listen, but the grandiosity of "Garden" and the quiet honesty of closer "Villian (I'll Stick Around)" will ensure that patience is rewarded.
Just a few years ago, Alex Schaaf was recording songs by himself in a bedroom. Now, he's moved from Wisconsin to Brooklyn, expanding Yellow Ostrich from a solo effort to a three-piece on "Strange Land." With the additions of drummer Michael Tapper and multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez, the album has a much larger sound, with plenty of guitar-driven, indie-rockers. The growth in sound has highs and lows throughout "Strange Land." At times, the band sounds disjointed, a young band trying to give a song a fuller sound despite some notes sounding forced in. When it does work, like on opener "Elephant King," the results are catchy and fun, with Schaaf's hopeful squeal surrounded by a building riff that, hopefully, is a good parallel for the group's future. "Strange Land" isn't perfect, but it does suggest that Yellow Ostrich may have a bright future ahead of it.
Justin Townes Earle
Nothing's Going to Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
After taking home 2011 American Music Award for Song of the Year, Earle withdrew to the western mountains of North Carolina to push out his next album—an effort recorded live in studio. Recording songs in one shot captures Earle's subtle intensity but lends to looser cuts, leading to a "what if we did just one more take" feeling on some tracks. "Nothing's" steers from his earlier sounds, as country-folk takes a backseat to the Memphis-soul drawn to the forefront with an emphasis on horns, resulting in a thicker feel. While sounds evolve as the artist grows, he remains lyrically sharp, proving still to be a great--yet troubled--storyteller. Listeners new to Earle will find this album more accessible than prior recordings, which will broaden his listening base, and faithful fans will find enough of the "old" Earle on the album to still keep it spinning.