Jared and the Mill, Blue Dahlia, They Might Be Giants, Sean McConnell, Frances Cone, Johno

Jared and the Mill, This Story is No Longer Available

Jared Kolesar has a sweet tenor voice that might first put you in mind of someone like Josh Ritter. Don't be fooled; Kolesar and his band delight in opening soft and then jarring you to attention by catapulting themselves onto the loud side of the sound spectrum. Take a song like "Feels Like." Its quiet acoustic-driven opening sounds like maybe Kolesar is about to unwrap a folk ballad. At the end of every few bars, though, there's a bit of a sneer and brief swelling of the instrumentation. That's your cue for what's about to happen. Soon, the percussion and bass will boom, the electric guitars will wail, and the room will start jumping. About the time you think the piece is ending, there's a swirl and we are taken to new places. Or maybe it's old ones. When this five-piece rock band from Phoenix starts to crank, it can feel like 1968. You will hear this soft-to-hard technique throughout the album. Sample "Break in the Ether" for another example, or "Soul in Mind." The latter is a terrific song that opens with such seeming vulnerability that it's a small shock when Jared sings, "I don't give a fuck/If you don't think I'm good enough." Then once again, it's bring on the noise. No need for Kolesar to worry. Jared and the Mill are plenty good enough. ★★★★

The Blue Dahlia, Le Tradition Américaine

What a fun album! The Blue Dahlia is a Brooklyn-based "project" by Dahlia Dumont and seven or eight friends. Dumont is a first-generation American and the title track honors immigrants through the eyes of a small girl who seldom sees her father because he is working hard to support his family. It's a testament to what it really means to come to America. The songs on this album are in English and French, but this multicultural/multiethnic band draws upon everything from French chanson to reggae, ska, jazz, folk, klezmer, and Big Band stylings. How about, for starters, both an old-time/bluegrass version of "I See Things Differently" and the same song with a reggae backbeat? Dumont has a strong voice to go with her scrappy approach to singing. She airs out her chops on the soulful, torchy "Reasonable," but goes full bore French cafĂ© singer on "Canal Saint Martin." "Le Reve II" is a joyous number that could be at home at a community dance somewhere in Mexico, or maybe the southern Pyrenees. Dumont propels herself into the heart attack-paced "Blah, Blah, Blah," a giddy number of trying to make big decisions when there's just too much in her mind. On "Plantation," she goes calypso. This is a kitchen sink kind of album in all the best ways. You can do a lot when two saxophonists, a trombonist, a trumpeter, a cellist, several accordionists and percussionists, bass, guitar, violin, and ukulele are laying down the grooves. ★★★★

They Might Be Giants, My Murdered Remains

It's no scoop to declare that They Might Be Giants (TMG) is the heir apparent to bands like The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. In turn, TMG gave birth to other tongue-in-cheek groups such as Flight of the Conchords and Lemon Demon. There are no surprises on My Murdered Remains, the 21st album released by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, which is to say you'll either like their shtick or you won't. As always, offbeat observations are on full display. My favorite track is "The Communists Have the Music," a riotous take on being apolitically political in which TMG explains: I got handed an Ayn Rand sandwich/Straight from the can, it tasted so bland/I asked a lass to pass me a glass/ Of Engels' Conditions of the Working Class/ Right away they dragged me to the committee/To explain my un-American activity/They're gonna see they made a mistake/If they'd only let me play my mixtape. Musically "The Neck Rolls Aren't Working" feels like a mash of early 60s rock and an overwrought cinematic score, and the song is either a series of non-sequiturs and open to interpretation. The album's least ambiguous song is "Best Regrets," which is about a busted relationship–sort of. In this case there's a touch of acid rock. But if it's too tame for you, try "Selectionist," which what you'd get if robots went to the disco. The new album is TMG's latest in the Dial-a-Song network of free music. Flansburgh and Linnell always make me smile, but in my reviewer role I'd have to say My Murdered Remains is similar to other TMG albums. But these guys have been cranking it out since 1982, so whadda I know? ★★★

Sean McConnell, Here We Go

He has a Celtic surname, but don't expect any diddly diddly music from Sean McConnell. He's from Massachusetts, but again you might not know it, which is to say he's more Nashville than Newtownabbey or Newburyport. "Here We Go" is a well-crafted song with a pop-influenced folk rock vibe and hooky repeating lines. McConnell has a warm inviting voice with a touch of nasality. Check out his tender duet with Lori McKenna on "Nothing On You." (Ten thousand angels can't keep from coming back home.) Or "Shotgun" with Audra Mae, a sweet acoustic country love song. McConnell busts out a band and choir (The McCrary Sisters) for the gospel-tinged "Shaky Bridges." McConnell has been around since 2000, so he's not exactly a newbie. He is, however, an artist to catch if you get the chance. ★★★ ½

Frances Cone, Late Riser

Frances Cone is another Nashville (via Brooklyn) artist who has started to attract attention. That's understandable as Christina Cone and Andrew Doherty are not cookie cutter artists churned out by a Tennessee factory. (The group name is in honor of Cone's musician father and grandfather, each born on September 11.) "Wide Awake" opens to electronic looping and gadgetry from Doherty, but cuts to Cone's piano and bird-like vocals. More synth and effects make up the bridge and then Cone lets it rip. "Arizona" is similarly wrapped. Although Cone's vocals might put you in mind of Robyn on this one, the latter never put this much atmosphere in a song. She picks up an electric guitar on "Failure," a song that might put you in mind of something from Nanci Griffith's back pages, though Griffith seldom climbed the scales like Cone does on this one. My only critique of this talented duo is that Ms. Cone is often more impressive than clear, hence it's often hard to know what she's singing. With her voice and presence, you might not care. ★★★ ½  

Johno, The Road Not Taken

Did you ever sketch a plan that was way better on paper than in reality? Such a project is Johno's The Road Not Taken. Johno (John Keating) is a trained jazz musician who plays several instruments and is best known as a composer, arranger, and instrumentalist. The concept of this album is a good one: take poems and soliloquies from Blake, Byron, Frost, Shakespeare, and others and set them to music. Toss in some pop/jazz/world music remakes of hits such as "CountryRoads,"  "HomewardBound," and "The Long and Winding Road." Mix with musicians (and influences) from the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, and Turkey and mess with time signatures. The flaw in the ointment is that Johno is simply not a very good vocalist. Johno tries whispery tones, growls, and techniques that blur the line between singing and spoken word, but there's simply no hiding the fact that he's an uninteresting vocalist. He should have taken the more traveled road and handed the mic to a skilled vocalist.   

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