THE AVETT BROTHERS | Emotionalism | Ramseur
To concertgoers at huge music festivals like Coachella and YouTube scavengers, The Avett Brothers are that bluegrass band that head bang. But those folks who expect banjo riffage on the Avetts’ latest CD, Emotionalism, might be initially disappointed. Here’s hoping they don’t give up on the release too early, because if given the chance, Emotionalism will reveal itself to patient listeners as a CD stuffed full of acoustic pop gems, tears-in-your-beer ballads and unexpected south of the border strummers.
With their sixth album, the prolific North Carolina trio stops trying to recreate the manic energy of their live shows and hunkers down in the studio with a piano, drums and cello joining the band’s usual standup bass, banjo and acoustic guitar on some numbers. One of the best results of the increased instrumentation is “Will You Return?,” which rests on a bed of impressive harmony vocals that recalls ‘60s acts like The Shangri-Las and swells near the end due to the presence of synth strings.
There are still plenty of down home acoustic songs too, but they frequently head in unexpected directions. “Pretty Girl from San Diego” begins like an Appalachian ballad but transforms itself into something that would sound at home in a South American cantina. Meanwhile, the standout “Paranoia in B Major” builds steam to a middle section that includes a few seconds of yelping and riffing. —Stuart Thornton
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT | Release the Stars | Geffen
For all of those who worried that that the twisted cathedral-ism of Wainwright’s Want Two was signaling the end of the progression so winningly scorched by its similarly named predecessor, Want One, this should come as a relief. Wisely, Wainwright’s sifted down all of the most enjoyable fruits of his ambition—breaking-glass crescendos, biting humor that spills its own drink all over itself—tossed out some of his counterintuitive complexities, and delivered a glorious summation of the wild-eyed artist sick of self-destruction and ready to embrace his prime, this time in lederhosen.
Opener “Do I Disappoint You?” burns its rhetoric in an orchestral blaze of God-tinged glory screams (“Why does it always have to be holy wine?/ Destruction!/ Of all mankind!”); “Going to a Town” channels his cantankerous father in a loping protest lament against our warlord state (“I’m so tired of America,” he sings).
Executive produced by drama king Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, Release the Stars seemingly does just that in one long, glorious mood swing. It all culminates in the title track, a woozy spectacular that marries the unlikely bedfellows of gospel and big band in an attempt to strip artifice of its ornaments by throwing the sparkly bits up into the air for all to see. —Billy Manes
ELIZABETH COOK | Balls | 31 Tigers
Making it in Nashville is a crapshoot. Sometimes the best talent just slips through the cracks at the major labels and ends up going the indie route. On one hand, the money may not be great, but the artistic freedom is invaluable.
Elizabeth Cook had her chance, but due to events beyond her control, the big mainstream country push never materialized. It’s their loss and our gain. Cook has one of those classic country voices—a little bit Dolly, a little bit Loretta and a little bit Pam Tillis. Like Loretta, she writes most of her songs and proves herself to be one strong woman. With the ability to deliver a pure honky-tonk tune such as “Don’t Go Borrowing Trouble” and a stunning twang-up of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” Cook shows some real hillbilly Balls. —James Kelly