Spins

First Impressions of Earth

THE STROKES

RCA

Compared to their massively hyped debut Is This It and its nearly identical follow-up Room on Fire, The Strokes' third time at bat sounds, at first listen, wildly divergent. It soon becomes apparent, however, that First Impressions of Earth is more an exercise in putting the group's trademark sounds together in new ways than a major departure.

The incredibly snappy rhythms, the alternately fluid and jumpy guitars, Julian Casablancas' theatrically disinclined (but newly divested of their formerly omnipresent distortion) vocals. Not that that's a bad thing; the end result is both fresh and familiar, cohesive but without the nagging sense of having heard it all before that marked Room on Fire. While the urban throb-rock of "Juicebox" and crackling "Ize of the World" are both the best things here and the ones that sound the least like The Strokes of yore, and a few other experiments (most notably the bored and boring "Ask Me Anything") fall a bit short, nothing seems overly out of place or forced.

More than anything, First Impressions is a solid and often impressive third outing from a band that knows its strengths, but also realizes it has both room to grow and the confidence to try and fill it. 3.5 stars.

SCOTT HARRELL

If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry

MARAH

Yep Roc

Few bands can combine instrumental chops, songwriting talent, earnest expression, and straight-up fun with the sort of shambling confidence that Philly roots/rock/pop combo Marah has always displayed. It all comes together again on this, the group's astonishingly good fifth full-length. If You Didn't Laugh careens from rollicking, full-volume bar-rock to twangy pop to catchy acoustic semi-folk, offering up interesting instrumental arrangements and lick-laden guitar parts along with insanely engaging lyrics ("lonesome goats like me, we got more balance than cheese on a onion ring;" "got a little shake I kept in the fridge/ gonna drink my bean and walk out and smoke it on the Walt Whitman Bridge"). It's tough to do this sort of stuff and make it sound original, but Marah's blend of skill and personality continues to set them apart — and raise the bar. 4.5 stars.

SCOTT HARRELL

When The Sun Is The Moon

HUDSON BELL

Monitor

Singer-songwriter Bell bolsters his melancholy pop with the full-band treatment, and frequently coats it with interesting, Built to Spill-esque guitar fuzz. His reedy tenor and occasionally sprawling song lengths will likewise draw that particular comparison, but When The Sun Is The Moon evinces both an acoustic Americana vibe and a penchant for gentle anthemics (particularly during beautiful closer "Sea Horse"), lending the tunes a somewhat original personality. Plus, familiar sonics aside, nearly everything here is gorgeous. (www.monitorrecords.com) 3.5 stars.

SCOTT HARRELL

East Coast Cool

John McNeil

OmniTone

Trumpeter McNeil's concept, a well-executed one at that, is to marry the instrumentation of the storied Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet (trumpet, baritone sax, bass, drums), the linchpin of the '50s West Coast sound, with an East Coast sense of harmonic adventure and a subtly outré feel. Diverging from the four-square swing of Cool Jazz, McNeil's quartet sashays through myriad rhythmic mutations with an engaging open-endedness. His originals (all but two tunes) have an elliptical, at times Wayne Shorter-esque quality, which the commandingly interactive band handles with a relaxed sort of verve. Occasionally, the solos (by McNeil and baritone man Alan Chase) are a bit too nuanced to hold the attention, but overall this is quite a fresh outing. (www.omnitone.com) 3.5 stars.

ERIC SNIDER

The Lightning and The Sun

KATY MAE

Maggadee

This six-song EP introduces a Brooklyn trio more influenced by the sounds of places like Athens, Ga., Minneapolis, and Denton, Texas than its own backyard. Katy Mae plies infectious, gritty-yet-sweet alt-country with one foot in roots rock and the other in the roots of the alternative/indie movement — there's at least as much R.E.M and Soul Asylum here as there is timeless twang. Everything is eminently listenable, and gets more so with continued exposure, but there's also a strange sort of subdued vibe to The Lightning, as if Katy Mae is holding something back for the stage. The listener can tell the group most likely rips it up live, and the band could use a little more of that visceral energy in the studio, as well. (www.maggadee.com) 3 stars.

SCOTT HARRELL

Always and Forever: The Classics

LUTHER VANDROSS

Epic

Compilations don't usually qualify for Backspins, but we're breaking the rule 'cause this single disc is just so fucking great. Always and Forever gathers a dozen of Luther's best ballad performances and dramatically rendered covers. His signature slow jamz — "A House is Not a Home," "Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me," "Anyone Who Had a Heart" — join lesser known remakes like "Going Out of My Head" and "Knocks Me Off My Feet." All of it oozes romance and sensuality. Between-the-sheets music doesn't get any better than this.

ERIC SNIDER

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