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Notable CDs

Notable CDs | Five recent pop-rock releases

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

Gospel Plow

This electric, country-gospel EP emerged from the afterglow of a gospel showcase in which Cook participated last year at the last minute. How did she happen to have 20 minutes of Southern-gospel staples at the ready? She'd grown up attending churches that sang them. And if she rocks them harder than the average Southern churchgoer might prefer, she also rolls them enough to keep them from gathering moss. As for Lou Reed's "Jesus," it would be more impressive if Glen Campbell hadn't beaten her to it.

The Nature of Things The Daredevil

Don't hold this Wisconsin band's association with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon against it. The falsetto-prone three-part vocal harmonies seem less like a ploy to validate the singers' sensitivity than an escape valve for their inner Bee Gees, and the abrupt syncopation and chord changes shouldn't throw anyone familiar with Danielson for a loop. Nor should the biblical allusions that proliferate or at least seem to. Is that "Jesus set me free" which one of the Sunde brothers is singing in "Ames, IA"? Enunciate, fellas, enunciate.

Grasshoppers in My Pillow

This 17-track album's subtitle-Blues, Gospel, Ragtime & Beyond-lets listeners know they're in for variety. It doesn't tell them that all of the genres this U.K. acoustic-guitarist touches sound more or less the same. Of course, given the James Tayloresque calm with which Pearson sings every song, aural syncretism representing an underlying unity of otherwise diverse traditions may be the whole point. He could've made the point more potently by doing so more succinctly. He would've made it less potently by eliminating Dylan's "Man of Peace."

Words and Music by Saint Etienne

In 1990 this British trio set out to make pop music informed by affection for and intelligence about the form as they'd come to know and love it. They succeeded. That they'd make one of their richest and catchiest albums at this late date, however, was by no means a foregone conclusion. "Over the Border," in which Sarah Bracknell recalls the soundtrack of her life, establishes the fondly reminiscent tone. The other dozen should provide the band's fans with pleasant memories as well. Giving back, liberals call it.

Spotlight

You'd never know it from the waves she isn't making in the States, but the dulcet-voiced U.K. singer Rumer is having a big year. First, Sudden Hunger Records released Close to the Sun, the excellent album of '60s-sounding lounge pop she recorded in 2008 with Rory Moore under the name Stereo Venus. Then, as a free download, she released her version of John Sebastian's hit 1976 television theme song, "Welcome Back."

It turned out to be a teaser for Boys Don't Cry (Atlantic), her second official album and the most flattering showcase of her retro sense and sensibility to date. Available in 12-track and 16-track editions, it highlights both her taste in '70s composers (one less-than-obvious song apiece from the likes of Jimmy Webb, Todd Rundgren, Gilbert O'Sullivan, and Neil Young) and her main weakness: a commitment to pretty melodies that's so wholehearted you sometimes can't help wondering whether she cares about the words.

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