A singer’s singer, Shelby Lynne is best known for her voice — a sensuous alto of formidable range — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for her emotionally fraught songwriting. But with her new “Revelation Road” she does it all: sings, writes, produces and plays all of the instruments, including drums. The result is a sumptuous, unabashedly Southern song cycle that ranks among the best records of her career.
Subdued but insistent, the lightly juking title track is a cross between country blues and soul, while “Even Angels,” a shuffling meditation on human frailty, ranges more toward the soul end of the spectrum. With down-home references to the likes of scrambled-egg sandwiches, “I’ll Hold Your Head” extols the virtues of rural working-class pride. “I Won’t Leave You” recalls the dusky pop-country of Bobbie Gentry. “Lead Me Love,” a sultry ballad, is buoyed by a bossa nova-inflected lilt.
Lynne’s lyrics are refreshingly matter of fact and never overreach, no doubt because she’s confident that her languorous Cotton State drawl can express whatever else she might want to convey.
“A voice through the wind sings through the trees, reminds me of the nights together, you and me,” she pines in “The Thief.” More pointed still is the epic understatement of the autobiographical ballad, “Alabama.” “I been insane since I was nine / Never went to crime / But the fightin’ kind, oh yeah,” she purrs, the mix of pride and defiance in her voice that of a woman who understands herself and her music very well.
— Bill Friskics-Warren
Recommended Tracks: “Revelation Road,” “Alabama,” “I’ll Hold Your Head
Within the first 30 seconds of Pree’s new release “Folly,” listeners will likely respond with either an emphatic embrace or visceral recoiling. The D.C.- based avant-folk band’s frontwoman May Tabol possesses the sort of idiosyncratic, in-your-face singing style that cannot help but polarize. Constantly marshaling her frenetic soprano up and down the vocal register, Tabol sounds a bit like a coquettish Joni Mitchell on laughing gas. Often double-tracked and highly pronounced in the mix, it is a vocal affectation that occasionally resembles contemporaries Feist and Joanna Newsom, but is ultimately unique. As Oscar Wilde put it: It’s the kind of thing you like, if you like that kind of thing.
Tabol’s exertions are rendered amid a flagrantly ramshackle aggregation of acoustic guitars, shifting time signatures and weird instrumental flourishes like the singing saw and the melodica. While all the players are clearly accomplished musicians, the intended effect appears to be spontaneous sloppiness. The impact is not always persuasive. Even amid the deliberately atonal singing and helter-skelter arrangements, one senses the presence of a proficient band well-versed in contemporary composition.
It’s easy to see what Pree could achieve in a less self-conscious mode. The vertiginous “Fresh Paint” combines heavy orchestration, backing vocals that vault from monotone to operatic, and compelling, unusual guitar and piano accompaniment. For portions of this track, these elements mesh alongside Tabol’s peripatetic vocal, making for a jarring and fascinating listen. But the song shifts gears too often and the overall effect echoes the least interesting aspects of prog. This happens throughout “Folly”: Hints of brilliance and beauty are in evidence, but are too frequently undermined by a seeming unwillingness to follow one idea through for more than 20 seconds at a time.
— Elizabeth Nelson
Recommended Tracks: “Songs of Promise,” “Crow”
Xeno & Oaklander
“Sets & Lights”
One of this fall’s word-of-mouth hits in theaters is “Drive,” the Ryan Gosling movie in which he plays a brooding loner who spends most of his time behind the wheel. In recent years, this description reliably ensured viewers would be bombarded with fast-paced, high-speed chases and an equally high-impact soundtrack to help sustain the adrenaline flow. “Drive” follows a subtler path, though, and that’s reflected in the soundtrack, which favors moody, synth-driven fare instead of turned-to-10 chunks of aggro. The tone is set, but the viewer still has a chance to think.
No songs by Xeno and Oaklander appear in “Drive,” but the New York group’s stark, intriguing new album “Sets & Lights” should be the next stop for those seeking more cinematic soundscapes. These are songs strong enough to stand on their own but would be best served with some sort of visual foil. Modern-day film noir directors, take note. The duo, consisting of Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo, works with self-imposed limitations, using analog synthesizers to create its chilling tunes, but manages to avoid sounding like a novelty act. Songs such as “Year’s Before” and “Autumn’s Edge” are considerably bleaker than most synth-pop but still wouldn’t sound out of place next to Depeche Mode on a playlist.
While McBride and Wendelbo excel at extracting a variety of sounds from their synth arsenal, they suffer from vocal limitations. His flimsy croon and her airy coo are unexceptional, though they do sound better when used in tandem. “Italy” is an album highlight in part because it is instrumental and open-ended. Even if you’re just staring at a wall it sounds epic.
— David Malitz
Recommended Tracks: “Italy,” “Autumn’s Edge,” “Years Before”