The Decemberists, ‘The King is Dead’
The Decemberists sure know how to turn their sound on its head. And spin it around a few times. They land in the rustic South with their sixth album, choking back their indie-rock canon to simply Americana after getting carried away on their last LP, 2009’s ambitious rock opera “The Hazards of Love,” where they piled on the flamboyant theatrics. The decision to downsize to organic accents and tangible narratives (no crazy forest creatures here) is not only an admirable exercise in music morphing, but one the quintet pulls off with expert panache. Opening charmer “Don’t Carry It All” makes getting through the album tough, and that’s because it’s so good; with harmonica running over a drum-lined woop and a catchy refrain, looping it is a hard lesson in discipline. Frontman Colin Meloy sweetly sings of lost love on “January Hymn,” a nostalgic beauty that has a sibling: the similarly gentle “June Hymn.” “This is Why We Fight,” built perfectly for live performances, has a welcome rumble-tumble feel that’s as modern as they get. Sharing the spotlight with Meloy is R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on guitar and mandolin (“Calamity Song”), and folkie Gillian Welch, who sings harmony on seven tracks with enough restraint to almost go unheard. That’s how well their voices work together. But all of “The King is Dead” – even at a mere 10 tracks – works in a unison that feels more easy-going than anything they’ve ever done. Grade: B+
Runner Runner, ‘Runner Runner’
How appropriate that the name of this California band’s lead single is “So Obvious,” because everything about their debut is. Clearly shooting for that punk-pop sound, even down to the redundant muses of chicks and partying, Runner Runner is one of the weakest descendants in a genre that’s already crowded with wannabes. They write like the obnoxious kid that laughs at his own farts and sing with the gusto of a copy machine, making for one pathetic piece of tween-leaned Dollar Store pop. Even their catchiest cuts, like that first single, are instantly flushable – ear candy whose fruity gum flavor fades faster than they will. Completely indigestible is “Papercuts,” where lead singer Ryan Ogren compares love to slicing your finger on loose leaf (what a poet), and the miscast wedding ballad “I Can’t Wait” that’s all gushy about some girl (aww… he found his Band-Aid). But they obviously know how far sappy songs will take them; the rest of the album, from the anthemic “Unstoppable” (the requisite “whoa-whoas” are included for sing-along pleasure) to the boy-band-meets-Ke$ha “Heart Attack,” is rife with airplay fodder. And these songs might get some, if they weren’t already on radio five years ago. (Out Feb. 15) Grade: D-
James Blunt, ‘Some Kind of Trouble’
Critics love to hate the British love lad, and no wonder: Even after “You’re Beautiful,” with his third album, he’s as edgy as a spoon. To be fair, some of these tracks pack a sweetness, like “Stay the Night,” and others – with hit-making producers Ryan Tedder and Greg Kurstin – expand his safe adult-contemporary sound. There’s even a song called “Dangerous.” But it’s still not enough to forgive lame lyrics about reality TV and broken hearts. “Some Kind of Trouble” is right.
Amos Lee, ‘Mission Bell’
When Amos Lee is great, he’s really great – like on “El Camino,” an emotional parable that bookends the album (Willie Nelson duets on the reprise). But even the most mediocre servings on his deeply personal fourth offering of acoustic soul, “Hello Again” and “Cup of Sorrow,” aren’t bad. That transcendent voice, an earthy Bill Withers croon, could sing a Facebook wall and win a Grammy. With songs like the should-be-soul-classic “Flower” and honest call-for-help “Violin,” he just might.