Amy LaVere is a Southern gothic songbird, with a girlish voice that can't quite hide the dark, swampy undertone of her music. Watching her in concert, it's hard not to gawk at the stand-up bass that nearly dwarfs her petite frame. On her third solo album, though, Miss LaVere refocuses our attention with some of the most atmospheric country songs this side of Neko Case, de-emphasizing her strength as a bass player and presenting herself as a full-package Americana artist.
A breakup album with as much elegance as sheer downheartedness, "Stranger Me" wasn't supposed to take this long to make. Recording sessions were first delayed in August 2009, when original producer Jim Dickinson died after undergoing triple bypass heart surgery. In the ensuing months, Miss LaVere's backup band came to an end, too, with guitarist Steve Selvidge jumping ship for The Hold Steady and drummer Paul Taylor, Miss LaVere's longtime boyfriend, throwing in the towel as percussionist and significant other. After releasing her first two albums within 14 months of each other, Miss LaVere found herself working on "Stranger Me" for more than four years.
It was worth the wait.
From Tammy Wynette to Miranda Lambert, country music has seen its share of breakup albums performed by Southern starlets. "Stranger Me" is something different, featuring a ghostly, textured sound (courtesy of Craig Silvey, who mixed Arcade Fire's Grammy-winning "Suburbs") that owes more to indie rock than anything in the country canon. At the same time, songs like "Come On" are filled with twinkling barroom piano, brushed percussion and the orchestral twang of pedal steel guitar, proving that unusually gorgeous results still can be coaxed from the usual group of instruments.
Miss LaVere may be upset, but she doesn't pine for the lovers who've wronged her. On "Red Banks," a minor-key murder ballad that borrows its opening riff from Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," she drowns her abusive partner during a stroll along the river. A cabinet of busted dishes are the only casualties in "You Can't Keep Me," but Miss LaVere still stomps out of her broken home with style, orchestrating her exit with power-pop guitars and a mariachi-styled horn section.
The fragility in her voice ties the whole package together. "Stranger Me" has bite, but beneath the layers of guitar and moody, venomous vocals is a brittle girl whose tears have only just begun to dry. Breakups are rarely clean, and "Stranger Me" is more than happy to roll in the dirt.
They Might Be Giants
Ten years ago, They Might Be Giants stopped making idiosyncratic "geek rock" for adults only. They've since become a kids' band, too, peppering their catalog with the occasional educational record about the ABCs or the animal kingdom.
"Join Us" is their first adult album in four years, although what constitutes an adult album by They Might Be Giant's standards is still fairly silly. With 18 tracks that comprise roughly 45 minutes of playing time, it's a fast, quirky song cycle, loosely connected only by the band's penchant for pop melodies. "Cloissone" is sung from the perspective of a raindrop, "Spoiler Alert" spins the story of a self-aware truck, and "2082" details a futuristic world that resembles a science fiction novel.
This definitely isn't high-brow stuff, but it's everything we've come to expect from They Might Be Giants, who are clearly having as much fun catering to their longtime listeners as the new, single-digit generation of TMBG fans.
Up All Night (single)
Also toeing the line between youth and adulthood are the 30-something musicians from Blink-182, who've reunited after a half-decade break. The former kings of late '90s pop-punk will release a new album, "Neighborhoods," this fall. In the meantime, fans can get a taste of what's to come by downloading "Up All Night," the album's lead single.
With its stadium-sized guitar riffs and atmospheric keyboards, "Up All Night" owes a lot to Angels & Airwaves, the anthemic side project that guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge launched during the early days of Blink-182's hiatus. The song doesn't swing for the fences as overzealously as that band did, though, and it connects with more force.
But after such a long absence, are the old fans still listening?