Death Cab for Cute, “Narrow Stairs”Death Cab for Cutie, that poster boy for sensitive indie pop, proves there’s some grit behind all that pretty, “OC”-approved music with “Narrow Stairs.” The follow-up to 2005’s “Plans” provides welcome evidence of growth: The songs here hit with a full-on assault of crunching guitar riffs, distorted, cracked vocals and walls of disorienting feedback. Frontman Ben Gibbard’s lyrics visit the moodier and darker corners of his mind. A lumbering bass lingers behind a stalker on the loose on the eight-minute “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the guitars driving “Cath ... “ venture close to alt-country territory, and “Pity and Fear” grooves with a jungle-like beat. It’s still the Death Cab you know and love, just a little rougher around the edges.
The Black Angels, “Directions to See a Ghost”If you missed the Black Angels’ full-length debut, “Passover,” in 2006, let this effort be a reminder of your mistake. This troupe cranks out hazy, dark rock ’n’ roll — real, honest-to-God rock ’n’ roll — with disarming ease. From the ominous, churning guitars and moaning toms on opener “You on the Run” to the 16-plus minutes of epic closer “Snake in the Grass,” the quartet borrows from the sludgy psych of the Velvet Underground, squeals through the Jesus and Mary Chain and tops it off with singer Alex Maas’ creep-tastic, reverb-drenched howl. The breakdowns on songs like “Dee-Ree-Shee” and “You in Color” truly highlight each member’s technical and dynamic abilities; the crescendos emphasize their quantum power to make great art as a group.
3 Doors Down, “3 Doors Down”Great rock bands know not only how to shake listeners with thundering guitars, but also how to feed their souls with thoughtful lyrics that echo the complexities of the human experience. 3 Doors Down succeeds powerfully on both levels with this brilliant album. The band’s fourth studio set is already off to a great start on radio with the hit “It’s Not My Time,” just one of 12 memorable tracks: “Train” is a hard-edged anthem about escaping to a better life, and “Citizen Soldier,” written at the request of the National Guard to be used in promotional spots, is a musically aggressive and lyrically poignant tribute to those serving in the military. Taut musicianship, well-crafted songs and potent vocals make this a landmark album in an already multiplatinum career.
Duffy, “Rockferry”The recent surge of Europeans retrofitting and upgrading 1960s soul rolls on in swirling style with this debut from Duffy, a Welsh singer-songwriter from the school of jazzy chanteuses who are here to maximize the international-but-not-too-international-for-Starbucks style, and sound quite lovely doing it. “Rockferry” hits the major notes: “Warwick Avenue” is a string-smooched jazz number, the title cut is a towering wall of piano-powered sound with moody lyrics, and first single “Mercy” is about as summery as summery gets. Like all such records, “Rockferry” splits its time between paying tribute to its source material and knocking it off, but its principal’s vocals, and generally pleasing wall-of-sound treatment, make it a good move anyway.
Babylon Circus, “Dances of Resistance”This 10-man French crew has a tremendously entertaining album in hand with “Dances of Resistance.” The disc opens with the title track, a whirlwind of high-energy ska, then doubles the dosage with the frantic “No Competition,” rolls through a circus-like interlude appropriately titled “Circus” and finally delivers a tune in French, “De la Musique et du Bruit.” At this point the ruling vibe is evident — full-tilt ska and dancehall reggae married to quirky lyrics. Case in point: “Mr. Clown,” a midtempo number with a terrific rhythmic bounce and a sly, sardonic lyric that’s as suggestive of a Fellini scenario as a piece of music can be. Different textures offer brief respites from the furious pace, as on the jazzy “Interlude Barbare” or the Balkan Gypsy feel of “Parade Acoustique.”
The Dresden Dolls, “No, Virginia...”Dresden Dolls vocalist Amanda Palmer is a showstopper. She can be as a calming as a member of a church choir or as towering as a Broadway lead, and the chaotic, piano-driven cabaret of the Dresden Dolls often requires Palmer to capture both extremes in a single verse. She’ll have a starring role later this year when she releases her first solo effort, but in the meantime, the Dresden Dolls’ “No, Virginia ... “ serves as a placeholder, a collection of odds and ends to tide fans over. Some cuts, like the cover of “Pretty in Pink” and the tensionless march of “Mouse and the Model,” didn’t need to be resurrected. But others, like the sing-along rolling notes of “Sorry Bunch” and “Night Reconnaissance,” a romp about middle-class vagrants, can stand with the Dolls’ A-sides.
Emmanuel Jal, “Warchild”There’s no doubting the chilling authenticity of this rapper’s tales of urban warfare. At the age of 8, Emmanuel Jal became a child soldier for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a horrific experience he pours into the songs on “Warchild,” his solo follow-up to a 2005 disc he made with Sudanese singer/oud player Abdel Gadir Salim. Jal’s lyrics are clearly the focus here — “I believe I survived for a reason to tell my story to touch lives,” he declares in the title track — but producers Roachie and Silvastone anchor the MC’s flow with casually globe-tripping tracks whose warm melodicism recalls recent work by Wyclef Jean.
Old 97’s, “Blame It On Gravity”Old 97’s may have begun their days injecting their ragged, sandy alt-country with frenetic punk energy, but on this, their first record in four years, the focus is squarely on hooks, pop crunch and a sense of fun not always apparent in their recent records. “Blame It on Gravity” is a fevered, carbonated affair, especially on the jingly “No Baby I,” the extremely sticky “My Two Feet” and opener “The Fool,” which also benefits from a solid helping of Rhett Miller’s tricky, narrative wordplay. But the band scores well on the slow numbers too — “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” is a near-perfect country weeper for a summer’s night.
Babasonicos, “Mucho”“A little self-criticism wouldn’t be bad for you,” Babasonicos’ Adrian Dargelos sings on “Nosotros,” from the Argentine rock quintet’s latest album. The group puts its own self-effacing spin on tracks that range from Beach Boys-ish balladry to rockabilly and garage rock, with a little new wave thrown in for good measure. While the songs are uniformly well-written and enjoyable, it’s the louder stylistic statements that leave the biggest impressions. This is a literate, well-crafted album that won’t change your life, but it’ll make for a fun presentation when the band takes its show on the road.