Not that many full moons ago, Matt Skiba, Dan Andriano and whichever skilled Chicago drummer happened to be around were cemetery-tanned, broken-hearted martyrs, ripping through superlative bruise-toned punk like a carful of suicides looking for an overpass support to hit. "I used to long for broken bones/ I used to long for a casket to call my own," sings guitarist/co-vocalist Skiba on the Crimson highlight "Mercy Me." It was that kind of skillful wound-probing - well written and juxtaposed by some of the catchiest choruses in the business - that resonated, and sets Alkaline Trio apart.
On their fifth proper full-length, however, the band's vaguely Gothic, self-destructive bent sounds forced for the first time. Crimson is obviously the work of a band dealing with growing pains, and trying to reach a larger audience at the same time. There are more mid-tempo rock tunes here than on previous albums, swathed in eerie piano, sheets of synths, processed guitar tones and self-consciously poetic lyrics.
All this postured elegance evokes a familiar New Wave feel, but rarely really works; while the opening "Time to Burn" and "Sadie" score, tracks like "Burn," "Prevent This Tragedy" and "Smoke" try too hard.
Drummer Derek Grant is a marvel, and Skiba and co-frontman/songwriter Andriano still consistently churn out amazing choruses and harmonies. But, by putting more familiar Trio sounds and strengths like the impeccable "The Poison," "Mercy Me," "Dethbed" and "Back to Hell" next to more awkward and less natural-sounding fare, the group has unfortunately produced its most uneven release to date.
Beyond the Sound Barrier
WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET
The sax legend's ace band, which includes drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Danilo Perez, is probably the most interactive working unit in jazz today. This concert disc comes just three years after the galvanic Footprints Live! served notice that Shorter was back in peak acoustic form. Culled from shows spanning 2002-04, Sound Barrier finds the quartet in an even more telepathic frame, ebbing and flowing, speeding up and slowing down, hitting the open road and easing into cul de sacs. At times, the group takes the elasticity too far, which results in doodling that leaves the listener with too little to chew on.
The Forgotten Arm
Mann strays just a bit from the lush, evocative fare of the Magnolia soundtrack and 2002's top-notch Lost in Space. The Forgotten Arm is a more intimate album, evincing a raw, Americana-tinged vibe. While still tastefully adorned with all manner of instrumentation, the record strives to put the listener at the time and place of Mann's most wholly sustained theme/narrative to date: a seedy, sawdust-strewn '70s-America fair circuit, where a broken-down boxer and a drug addict meet, meander and part. She conquers the concept album's biggest challenge - forcing single songs to cohesively fit a larger story - with deceptive ease, offering a collection of gorgeous, slightly gritty tracks that can be enjoyed both singly or as pieces of a whole. (www.aimeemann.com)
Fronting the Boston-based Helium through much of the '90s, Mary Timony began her solo career in 2000 with Mountains and is now considered a sort of anti-diva. On this newest effort, she delivers lyrics, filled with her characteristically subdued angst, in a voice dry with irony. The bare-bones instrumentation can be as droning as it is hauntingly melodic. The album's underlying life force is the drumming of The Medication's Devin Ocampo. As subdued as most of the tracks are, Ex Hex has moments of moderate danceability.
HEAD OF FEMUR
Chicago's Head of Femur raid an entire music store on Hysterical Stars, an album with ambitious arrangements that include strings, horns, tinkling bells and pianos, among other sonic minutiae. A side project turned main musical endeavor for former members of Pablo's Triangle, HoF still retain a side project's novelty and quirkiness while growing from three to eight members since its creation. The band is sonically all over the place: Imagine a high school band, a few New Orleans street musicians and a group of Mariachis all marching into the same street square, shuffling members and then walking in to a bar where a hoarse-voiced indie band is performing. The resulting chaos is Head of Femur's sound, and it strangely sticks together.
Once a fish-out-of-water country singer, Lynne reinvented herself in 2000 with the transcendent R&B album I Am Shelby Lynne. The following year, she took a middling run at becoming a Big Pop Star with Love, Shelby. Lately, the singer-songwriter has settled on a no-frills style that accentuates her innately soulful pipes. Suit Yourself has a front-porch vibe that's even looser than '03's Identity Crisis, with breakdowns and verbal asides accentuating the point that this was music made on the fly. Lynne, who produced the sessions, and her band throw it all into the blender: a torch tune here, a grabby guitar rocker there, along with acoustic ballads, rootsy country-folk, steamy R&B, catchy guitar rock, and hints of gospel. It all comes together best on her smoldering, country-meets-soul version of Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia," laced with slinky pedal steel. Credited as "Track 12," the song closes the album in fine, seductive form.