Bright Eyes 'The People's Key' (Saddle Creek)
3 stars = Good
"I take some comfort in knowing the wave has crested," Conor Oberst sings in "Haile Selassie," a Rasta-flavored "One Love"-style exaltation, a typically finely crafted soul-folk rumination on "The People's Key." "Knowing I don't have to be an exception."
Mr. Oberst, who makes up Bright Eyes along with instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, turns 31 this week, and he has been marked as a songwriting wunderkind since he was a teenager.
"The People's Key" is the first Bright Eyes album since 1997 (although, in the interim, Mr. Oberst has released two albums under his own name, plus one with Monsters of Folk). For the most part, Mr. Oberst sounds relieved of generation-spokesman pressure and happy to get down to the business of writing excellent songs. And there are a bunch on the musically varied "The People's Key," from the refreshing, rocked-out, and riffy "Shell Game" to the spiritual-sustenance-seeking, piano-tinkling philosophizer "Ladder Song."
This CD gets taken down a half a star for the spoken ramblings of mystically minded cowboy and Mr. Oberst pal Randy Brewer, which pop up on three occasions to waste everybody's time.
-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
PJ HARVEY 'Let England Shake' (Vagrant)
3 stars = Good
You don't have to be an Anglophile or a student of World War I to love PJ Harvey's eighth album, but it would help. The powerhouse singer and guitarist's first album under her own name since 2007's piano-based "White Chalk" takes a measure of her homeland's bloody past and present, from Gallipoli to Afghanistan, with a 12-song set that rewards attention, but will not rock the world a la, say, 1993's "Rid of Me."
Recorded in a cliffside, 19th-century church in Dorset with usual collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey, and the producer Flood, "Let England Shake" starts off examining the battle for the Bosphorus on the title cut, wittily borrowing a xylophone melody from "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," while regarding a landscape "weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood won't rise again." In similarly crafty manner, she quotes Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," while summoning a sense of timeless sorrow on "The Words That Maketh Murder," on which she plays autoharp and saxophone.
I'm betting Ms. Harvey spent some time reading World War I poets such as Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke as she composed the acoustic-based, often-wispy songs here, which gather commanding force, quietly, as they consider what it means to be English.
-- Dan DeLuca
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK:
Drive-By Truckers, "Go-Go Boots": The ninth studio album from the Southern-rock band has been described by frontman Patterson Hood as its "most Muscle Shoals-sounding album."
Mogwai, "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will": Seventh album from the daring Scottish post-rock quintet. Among the tracks: "How to Be a Werewolf" and "You're Lionel Richie."
Twilight Singers, "Dynamite Steps": Fifth album and first in five years from Greg Dulli (Afghan Wigs) actually features a duet with Ani DiFranco, plus guests Mark Lanegan and Petra Haden.
The Dears, "Degeneration Street": Fifth album from the soulful, funky, baroque Canadian indie rock band features the single "Omega Dog."