100 Lovers
(Anti- Records)

This Denver-based quartet blends a wide variety of Mediterranean and Eastern European musical styles into its pop. On its sixth full-length album, 100 Lovers, the band delivers its most consistently tuneful set to date. Guitarist Nick Urata sings tales of romance either gone wrong (“The words come easily, and they sound so lovely/I guess it’s just as easy if you lie to me”) or likely to (“There is no doubt/You’re gonna chew me up and spit me out/Ahhh, but isn’t it good?”). The band supports Urata with scraping violins, bouzouki, gypsy accordions and mariachi treatments, piling the genres up to towering heights that never even begin to seem shaky. Thanks to its high-quality songwriting, DeVotchKa never sounds like it’s trying on these musical styles for size. All the exotic instrumentation and genre-blending add up to a distinctive sound, and 100 Lovers is sure to please fans and newcomers alike.

DeVotchKa - 100 Lovers

Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams
(Sub Pop)

The Dum Dum Girls’ third release actually is its first recorded as a genuine band. Instead of recording the music all by herself at home, on Only in Dreams singer/guitarist/songwriter Kristen Gundred actually plays and sings with her bandmates in a real studio. Gundred’s smoky, achy voice is front and center in the mix; the guitars chime and sparkle, and the rhythm section drives the songs confidently. All this studio polish shows up just in time to benefit Gundred’s most mature set of songs to date. The L.A.-based quartet shows off its Ronettes/Shangri-La’s fixations as much as ever, but this time around, it’s not just about tough-girl attitude. Gundred writes songs about loss, grief and loneliness — specifically, the recent death of her mother and the stress of being separated from her husband while on tour. On “Caught in One,” the singer tells a dying person, “All skin and bones, but in your eyes/I see that you are still alive/This year’s been a drag/Who knew it’d be so bad?” In “Hold Your Hand,” she tells the listener, “You’d do anything to bring her back/Oh, it’s a game/How tight can you shut your eyes?/Shut out the light/Death is so bright.” Facing some of the darkest times of her life, it’s remarkable that Gundred chose to step out of the privacy of her bedroom and bring her music, and her band, into brighter light.

Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones
Rocket Science

This is original saxophonist/keyboardist Howard Levy’s first album with the Flecktones since 1993; from the sound of Rocket Science, it’s as if he never left. (Not that Levy’s replacement, Jeff Coffin — who left the Flecktones in 2009 to join the Dave Matthews Band — was any kind of slouch.) Levy sparks with banjoist Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Roy “Future Man” Wooten as effectively as he ever did, as the Flecktones continue to explore their seamless blend of jazz, bluegrass, rock, funk, and whatever other genres they decide to toss into the mix. The four musicians get into all sorts of graceful interplay right from the start, without ever losing track of the melodies. The richly syncopated “Life in Eleven” puts Levy’s chromatic harmonica playing right up front; Victor Wooten’s bass takes center stage on “Falani,” even as Fleck and Levy get into a contrapuntal duel in the background. The group takes a more languid approach on “Like Water” and takes its melodic cues from Middle Eastern music on “Sweet Pomegranates”; the sprightly “Bottle Rocket” ends the set on an energetic note. Rocket Science is a superb album that’s sure to please long-time Flecktones fans, and makes a great introduction to the work of this outstanding group.

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones - Rocket Science

Fountains of Wayne
Sky Full of Holes
(YepRoc Records)

Like Fountains of Wayne’s previous four albums, Sky Full of Holes is loaded with instantly memorable melodies, clever lyrics and classy, occasionally cheeky power-pop stylings. Most of the songs share a theme about people searching for escape — whether from everyday life’s routine, its dead-end paths, or in a couple of cases, from the ghosts of the past. “The Summer Place” is about the memories a woman associates with her dysfunctional family’s beach vacations: “She ran away back in ‘78/Just down the beach to the neighbors/They brought her back after sunset/Her dad said, ‘Don’t do me any favors’.” The protagonist of “Action Hero” is a stressed-out family man whose daydreams about fighting crime take on extra poignancy when he gets bad news from the doctor. “A Dip in the Ocean” is about getting out of town for the weekend. In the upbeat, horn-driven “Radio Bar,” a guy who’s wasted time every night with his buddies sees a way out: “One night, there was a girl there/For some reason, she pulled up her chair/She said, ‘Why don’t we go somewhere?’/So I passed her her coat/That was all that she wrote/That was it for the radio bar.” Only “Workingman’s Hands” seems to buck the trend by presenting a character who focuses on what needs to be done today. Sky Full of Holes is a marvelously consistent, enjoyable album from one of the most reliable bands in rock.

Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes

The Funk Ark
From the Rooftops
(ESL Music)

The band’s name says it all. The Funk Ark herds all the best classic dance grooves on board for the voyage — old-school funk, soul, Afro-beat, Latin jams. Keyboardist Will Rast leads this Washington, DC-based band through ten tracks, making sure all the instruments have plenty of room to move and groove. With the horn section carrying the bulk of the melodic load, the musicians move from one style to the next — or mix them within the same track — without a misstep. “Horchata,” “Power Struggle” and the title cut are irresistible funk jams. “A Blade Won’t Cut Another Blade” hints at Fela Kuti’s explorations; “El Beasto” blends that African sound with a Latin American flavor. Another savory dose of that Latin sound shows up in the mellow “Carretera Libre.” From the Rooftops is an excellent debut from a band that obviously believes in the George Clinton axiom, “Funk is its own reward.”

The Funk Ark - From the Rooftops

The Horrors
(XL Recordings)

On its third album, Skying, this English quintet pursues its Eighties rock obsessions with consistently excellent, melodic results. Faris Badwan sings with a strong hint of The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler in his voice, and the rest of the band — guitarist Joshua Hayward, keyboardist Tom Cowan, bassist Rhys “Spider” Webb and drummer Joe Spurgeon — weave a dense, lush web of sound reminiscent of The Chameleons, early Simple Minds and later-day Echo & the Bunnymen. “Changing the Rain,” “I Can See Through You” and “Dive In” all brim with ringing, anthemic drama, while “Monica Gems” and “Endless Blue” put more emphasis on their guitar crunch. “Moving Further Away” and “Oceans Burning” show The Horrors getting more ambitious with their suite-like development. And with its keyboard sparkle and horns, “Still Life” sounds like a lost classic from a John Hughes movie. As the title suggests, The Horrors take their music to new heights on Skying.

The Horrors - Skying

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Here We Rest
(Lightning Rod Records)

Former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell stays true to rock & roll’s deepest sources as he explores various forms of loneliness on his third solo album, Here We Rest. In the country song “Codeine,” the singer complains, “If there’s two things that I hate/It’s having to cook and trying to date/Bustin’ my ass all day to play hurry-up-and-wait.” Over raw guitar and electric piano, the protagonist of “Stopping By” sings to his estranged father, “Guess it’s been 15 years/Since I came through here/Probably should have called to warn you/That I’m stopping by.” After nine songs full of loss, rejection and reproachment, Isbell wraps the album with the the rustic “Tour of Duty,” in which a soldier plans his return to normal home life after the war: “I taught myself to tolerate the pain/All the loneliness and boredom/And the work I did in vain/Now I’m not the same as I was/I’ve done my tour of duty/Now I’ll try to do what a civilian does.” It’s a timely, graceful conclusion to an excellent album.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Here We Rest

Booker T. Jones
The Road from Memphis
(Anti- Records)

The man who single-handedly — well, double-handedly — defined the sound of the organ in R&B and soul recorded a great album in 2011, with help from members of The Roots, former Motown/Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey, and a few distinguished guests on the mic. Jim James of My Morning Jacket sings about the optimistic faith in “Progress”; Matt Berninger of The National duets with the Dap-Kings’ Sharon Jones on the lush soul number “Representing Memphis.” The star himself reminisces about his youthful efforts to make a name for himself in the strutting “Down in Memphis”: “Doin’ it in the evening/Learnin’ how to walk the beat … Headin’ for the darkest club/Down on Beale Street.” Even Lou Reed, singing the slow, moody closing number, “The Bronx,” sounds soulful in this company. Jones still plays the Hammond B-3 organ with that rich, sinuous purr that he perfected a half-century ago; that sound still is irresistible and his playing always assured. But Jones and company keep the emphasis on the tunes, from New Orleans-inflected instrumentals like “Walking Papers” and “The Hive” to the strutting funk of “The Vamp” and “Harlem House” to choice covers of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.” The Road from Memphis delivers classic-sounding Memphis soul, yet still sounds up-to-the-minute fresh. Just goes to show that music and playing like Booker T.’s never goes out of fashion.

Booker T. Jones - The Road from Memphis

The Joy Formidable
The Big Roar

The Joy Formidable’s debut long-player lives up to its title: on The Big Roar, the Welsh trio delivers song after song full of pounding rhythms, spiny bass, surging melodies, and dense layers of churning, blazing guitars. On tracks like “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” “Whirring” and “The Magnifying Glass,” TJF builds its sound to spiraling heights, sometimes careening toward audio chaos but never losing control. The album isn’t just non-stop bombast, though; The Joy Formidable deploys considerable skill with dynamics to make the most of its melodies. In numbers like “Austere,” “I Don’t Want to See You Like This,” “Cradle” and “Buoy,” Ritzy Bryan’s guitar frequently drops out of the mix, leaving her rich, unabashedly Welsh-accented voice supported just by Rhydian Dafydd’s bass and Matt Thomas’ drums. Those stripped-down moments let the group coil its music tighter, so Bryan’s guitar riffs can rush out toward the listener with that much more urgency. In the final track, “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” the musicians pile on the keyboards along with the guitars, Bryan holds back nothing in her singing, and the band uses all the loud/soft shifts that the track probably can withstand. Between this album and an enthralling show at the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs last September, The Joy Formidable all but defined 2011 for me.

The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar

Dan Markell
Eleven Shades of Dan Markell
(Fermada Nowhere Music)

Power-pop draws from some very familiar rock & roll sources, sure, but in the hands of a talented, inspired musician, the results can sound as alive and up-to-the-minute as next week. On his second album, Colorado Springs-born, L.A.-based singer/songwriter Dan Markell makes classic rock & roll styles sound fresh — and vice versa. Whether on upbeat numbers like “Seven Shades of Envy Green,” “Truly Julie,” “Electric Sunshine” and “(If You’re Headed Nowhere) You’ve Arrived” or lilting ballads like “Give Me the Word” and “Sour Apple,” Markell’s songwriting takes a McCartneyesque approach to melody. His voice has more than a trace of McCartney too, although Sir Paul might not have come up with a couplet like “Keeping your head on straight/And offering the finger to the hand of fate.” (Well, the younger Paul sure wouldn’t have.) Bassists Bret Helm and Paul Martinez and drummer Monte McConnell provide the principal support to Markell’s guitar, keyboards and vocals. Guitarist Jim Babjak brings that instantly recognizable Smithereens crunch to the swaggering “Every Other Guy,” and former Wings drummer Denny Seiwell plays on the ballad “You Mighta Made the Sun” (which actually evokes latter-day XTC more than it does Seiwell’s former boss). Markell gets help from a few hometown worthies as well: bassist Dan Nelson, guitarist Dave Arvizu and drummer Steve Schaarschmidt. Eleven Shades is full of clever, memorable rock & roll that will leave listeners reconsidering, with each spin, which track is their favorite. (While they’re at it, those listeners should check out Big Ideas, Markell’s equally accomplished debut.)

Dan Markell - Eleven Shades of Dan Markell

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Delvin Neugebauer hosts the Overnight Music Mix each Thursday. Contact him at


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