Trees Outside the Academy


(Ecstatic Peace!)

I've spent large chunks of my adult life listening to Sonic Youth and, off the top of my head, I can only think of one track by the band that prominently features an acoustic guitar. That goes some way toward explaining why all the unplugged six-strings on band chieftain Thurston Moore's second solo disc are such a refreshing change of course. On Trees Outside the Academy, Moore lays down bed after bed of acoustic grooves, bending strings and strumming folky chord changes as effortlessly as he normally kills your ear with feedback.

Moore recorded Trees at the home studio of buddy and fellow Western Mass-ite J Mascis — who lends his own considerable ax skills to four tracks — and the vibe throughout is nostalgic and familial, an aging indie legend's look back at nearly three decades of Sonic Youth-dom. Maybe Moore's imagination was sparked by SY's recent series of gigs performing the 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation in its entirety. Or perhaps, now that SY's contract with Geffen is kaput, it was because of the band's uncertain future.

Whatever the cause, the rearview-mirror theme is clear, reinforced by liner notes filled with photos of Moore as a young aesthete-in-training, clutching iconic punk LPs — Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Patti Smith's Horses — and also by the disc's closing track, "Thurston @13," which features what sounds like a teenage Moore recording avant-sound pieces straight to cassette.

While I hope SY never hangs up the electric guitars, Trees is proof that if the band ever goes soft for good, the results might not be bad at all. 3.5 stars —Cooper Levey-Baker

The Shepherd's Dog


(Sub Pop)

Nick Drake didn't sell many records during his lifetime, but the British folkie with the delicate, hushed voice, bleak lyrics, and penchant for finger-picked guitar and minor chords inspired more than his fair share of acolytes. Iron and Wine singer/songwriter Sam Beam ranks among the best. The pained whispers. The tender falsetto. Lyrics about the kissing of "blood red lips." He's a mellow fellow with a grey cloud following him everywhere. But while Beam's first two albums found him mostly alone with his guitar, this disc gets the full band — sitar, organ, lap steel — treatment, making it sound more like, say, Astral Weeks than Pink Moon. Toward the end of The Shepherd's Dog, Beam even boogies a bit. Or tries to. Over barroom piano and slashing slide guitar, he delivers "The Devil Never Sleeps." It's a great little ditty about small-town ennui and the lack of quality tunes across the airwaves. But when Beam offers a line like "everybody's bitching that there's nothing on the radio," one can't help but want him to ditch the whisper and, y'know, sing the line like he's actually feeling the song's juke-joint groove. 3 stars —Wade Tatangelo

Across the Universe



Creating a film musical based on Beatles songs and having cast members sing most of the material for the soundtrack ... doesn't sound too good on paper. Actually, Across the Universe is not the horror show I expected. Is it important art? Not for a second. Is it, for the most part, a competently performed set of iconic tunes? Yeah, pretty much. Despite guest performances by Bono and Joe Cocker — both of whom have minor roles in the film and sound like they're sleepwalking on the soundtrack— the surprising ringer here is Jim Sturgess. Who? Jim Sturgess plays a character named Jude in the movie. He opens the disc by singing the first verse of "All My Loving" a cappella, and straight away he proves to have an expressive, nuanced tenor. He further excels in the twangy "I've Just Seen a Face," the dreamy title track and a swirling "Strawberry Fields." I always thought that "Something" was a Beatles song I never needed to hear again, but Sturgess' languid rendition actually gives the tune new life. OK, this is pretty much where the praise ends. Evan Rachel Wood (Lucy) holds her own on "It Won't Be Long" and "Blackbird," but Dana Fuchs (Sadie) caterwauls Joplin-style through a dreadful "Helter Skelter." Bono sounds as if he's trying to tone down all Bono-isms, so his work on "I Am the Walrus" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" comes off as restrained, even generic (matching the production). Cocker? The one-time soul belter sounds damn near feeble on "Come Together." 2.5 stars —Eric Snider