New music for August

Posted July 30, 2009, at 5:59 p.m.

Pete Yorn

“Back and Fourth”

(Columbia)

So what’s wrong with 10 nicely crafted pop tunes, strong on melody, rich with instrumentation, and with lyrics that reflect adult emotions? Well, nothing, actually.

Singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, who’s got the alternative rock voice to accompany the above, has produced a consistent and lovely set of songs on this, his fourth record. Yorn says he considers his first three offerings a trilogy, and he approached the song writing differently this time out, writing the lyrics first.

“Back and Fourth,” his first in three years, has the feel of a record whose working strategy was to focus less on grand statements and deep thoughts and more on little gems that don’t reach beyond their grasp. And the songs are gems.

The opening tune “Don’t Wanna Cry” is radio-friendly pop perfection. Eight of the other nine songs are just as well crafted, but the singer turns inward; reflecting, musing, writing letters he’ll never send to loves lost.

Musically, producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley) builds the songs from acoustic guitar, adding mandolin, electric guitar, pedal steel, some active percussion work and backing vocals. The result is a rich palette, stopping just short of over-production.

Yet for all its success, “Back and Fourth” could use one or two swing-for-the-fences, lay-my-guts-bare-on-the-table songs. It’s as if you’re ordering appetizers only in a fine restaurant; tasty, yes, but somehow less than satisfying.

At the same time, in this age of song downloads, Yorn has recorded enough winners in this release to add to a killer shuffle mix.

— TOM GROENING

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God Help the Girl

“God Help the Girl”

(Matador)

There might be no better pop songwriter alive today than Stuart Murdoch of Scottish indie rock darlings Belle and Sebastian. The man has composed dozens of heartfelt, lyrically intriguing, instantly memorable songs that would have been huge Top 40 hits if people still listened to Beatlesque pop-rock on the radio nowadays.

Perhaps he’s looking to infiltrate the mainstream through a different medium with his latest project, a film called “God Help the Girl.” The movie, which is to be shot in 2010, is based on a story by Murdoch, and though the film isn’t complete yet, the soundtrack is. Murdoch put out an Internet casting call for female singers for the project, and leaves most of the vocal work to his discoveries here, although he does lend his distinctive pipes to two songs.

It’s difficult to judge the success of the album outside of the film’s context; some of the songs, like the jazzy instrumental “A Unified Theory,” seem like quirky non sequiturs and don’t hold up well on their own. Others, like the delicate “Pretty Eve in the Tub,” are more indebted to traditional Broadway musical stylings, and will probably be more fun for theater fans than they are for Belle and Sebastian’s indie rock following.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best songs are those that you can easily imagine as Belle and Sebastian tracks: the graceful “Come Monday Night” makes perfect use of Ireton’s pristine vocals, and “Perfection As a Hipster,” a jangling duet between Ireton and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, is an instant candidate for your “Best of Belle and Sebastian” mix tape.

You can’t blame Murdoch for wanting to stretch and try something new, and there are certainly enough highs here to make it worth your time, but let’s hope a new album from his main band is in the works once he gets this project out of his system.

— TRAVIS GASS

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St Vincent

“Actor”

(4AD)

Annie Clark, a.k.a. St Vincent, seems to absorb the techniques of all the music she’s ever heard over the years. There are flashes of the baroque arrangements of fellow indie songwriter Sufjan Stevens; there are the unique vocal stylings that are reminiscent of Beth Gibbons of Portishead, or the more subdued moments of Kate Bush. It’s emotionally close, like Fiona Apple, yet oddly funky and rhythmically complex, like Prince — a comparison I wouldn’t have thought of, had Clark not said it herself.

“Actor,” Clark’s second album, takes the coy brilliance of her first, “Marry Me,” and turns it on its head. The album is dark shadows, questions and Clark’s intensely brilliant arrangements. Switching dexterously between her regular voice and voice modulation, Clark brings in shimmering strings, her trademark flashes of guitar shreddery, and lots of unexpected instrumentation — strange samples here, pounding drums there.

That’s not to say that the songs suffer under the weight of Clark’s kitchen-sink arrangements. She’s as tight and smart a songwriter as ever, as evidenced on such pop-flavored tracks as lead single “Actor Out of Work” and “Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood.” Elsewhere, the dark, unsettling tracks “The Strangers” and “Black Rainbow” show that she’s not afraid to take on tough subjects and go further lyrically. It doesn’t appear that Annie Clark is afraid of trying anything. Here’s to 2009’s most ambitious album.

— EMILY BURNHAM

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Escala

“Escala”

(Syco/Columbia)

From Simon Cowell, the man who has shot down hundreds of “American Idol” hopefuls, comes some fresh new faces of classical music.

Of course, Cowell had an advantage finding this group, as he was also a judge on “Britain’s Got Talent,” where Escala first made the scene last year.

Escala is a female quartet playing electronic string instruments, made up of violinists Victoria Lyon (the great-great granddaughter of famed opera singer Jenny Lind) and Izzy Johnston, viola player Chantal Leverton and cellist Tasya Hodges. Together, they’re telegenic performers, as their breakthrough run on “BGT” revealed.

On their self-titled debut album, produced by Grammy winner Trevor Horn, the foursome take recognizable songs such as Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (with a guitar solo by Slash) and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and make them their own.

They also include their versions of more traditional string pieces such as Handel’s “Sarabande,” Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings, Op. 11” and their signature song “Palladio.”

Having such video-ready ambassadors is a great way to introduce younger music fans to classical music. And the women in Escala have the musicianship to be thought of as much more than just the classical Spice Girls.

— DALE McGARRIGLE

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