Dean & BrittaBack Numbers
Essential: "The Words You Used to Say"
He said, she said
Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips no longer are moonlighting. "Back Numbers," their second release, attempts to outshine critically lauded past works with their former bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna. A follow-up to 2003's "L'Avventura," "Back Numbers" is the pair's first album as husband and wife and reflects their artistic evolution and commitment to each other. Like any relationship, the songs have their ups and downs, from the heartache of "Words You Used to Say" to the reassurance of "Our Love Will Still Be Here." On "Wait for Me," Phillips coos, "Through the window/ Dirty sky/ Oatmeal cookies make me cry." What seems like a wistful lament is actually the sound of empowerment. And through that emotional empowerment every track builds upon its refined layers of sound, from the lilting angst of "You Turned My Head Around," a cover of the Lee Hazelwood/Ann-Margret song, to the lullaby rock of "Crystal Blue R.I.P." The album casts the duo in a new light that may not quite eclipse their former work, but it has set them well on their way. Dean & Britta perform at the Museum of Fine Arts on March 9. Call 617-369-3306 for tickets or go to mfa.org/concerts.
Lonely, DearLonely, Noir
Essential: "I am John"
For those who have never visited Sweden, listening to recent popular Swedish music may be a bad thing, conjuring up images of a place where people stare out the window dreamily and experiment with instruments in their basements all day. And that's exactly how Emil Svanangen (a.k.a. Loney, Dear), Sweden's latest pop sensation, wrote his debut album, "Loney, Noir." Actually, the album is only a debut in that a credible label released it; Svanangen self-recorded and sold thousands of albums in the past few years, strictly via word of mouth. His airy, high-pitched voice and innocently contemplative outlook would make it easy to slot him under that term that all musicians hate: twee. Twee or not, there is a brilliant simplicity to Svanangen's music, though the tunes are never sparse. Svanangen plays multiple instruments and recruited several musicians to join him on "Loney, Noir," resulting in 10 meticulously crafted, tremendously orchestral songs. "I must never let you down," Svanangen sings assuredly on "I Am John," and then scratching bass, thundering drums, and tinkling xylophones swirl in, the tempo speeds up, and he has followed through on his promise. [Caitlin E. Curran]
Andy Palacio & the Garifuna CollectiveWatina
Andy Palacio became the top pop star in his native Belize performing punta, the local dance-oriented pop music. But over time, he grew interested in the traditional rhythms and culture of his ethnic community, the Garifuna, one of the African diaspora's more far-flung communities, whose members descend from slaves who were forcibly deported to Central America's Caribbean coast. In part, "Watina" is an act of preservation of this fragile culture: Most of the songs are in the endangered Garifuna language, and the spiritual invocation "Baba," with its magnificent vocal harmonies, has become an anthem of Garifuna cultural revival. But this is also a modern, funky record, beautifully engineered by the Belize producer-activist Ivan Duran, whose pioneering local label, Stonetree Records, is a story in itself. Comparisons with roots reggae are inevitable and apt, as the sounds on "Watina" possess the same freshness, and Palacio, though only in his 40s, is blessed like the reggae mystics with the kind of deep, soulful voice that the ancestors select to convey their wisdom. The supporting cast, drawn from the Stonetree stable, only enriches the project further: "Ayo Da," Palacio's duet with 75-year-old Paul Nayor, is a standout, brimming with Buena Vista-ish elegance and dignity. Nevertheless, "Watina" wears its cultural significance lightly: Recorded in a cabin on the beach, it never loses the relaxed, wide-open feel of those surroundings. [Siddhartha Mitter]
Explosions in the SkyAll of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
Essential: "The Birth and Death of the Day"
It's fortunate that teen angst-filled pop metal already snagged the emo tag. Otherwise, given the emotional heft of Explosions in the Sky's fourth album, "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone," some wag might subcategorize such so-called post-rock bands with the silly moniker. This magnificent follow-up to the Texan instrumental quartet's so-so score to the football flick "Friday Night Lights" and to its previous masterwork, "The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place," has a simple regime of sharp militaristic drumming and experimental, shrill guitar riffing, which is mismatched with calmer, classical plucking. Epic crashing chords are sweetened by twinkling melodic notes, evoking both hope and helplessness, and beauty and sadness: the very stuff of inner life. Call it emo for adults. [Linda Laban]
Essential: "Rainy Day"
It was Keller Williams's dream to make a record he could still be proud of at 80 years old. But his latest album isn't just a dream for him: It's a dream for fans of jam-band rock, too. "Dream," Williams's 11th album, is a quirky, genre-spanning jam session with contributions from 20 guest musicians. With a little help from his friends -- including virtuoso banjoist Bela Fleck, Grateful Dead rocker Bob Weir, jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, and tabla player Samir Chatterjee -- Williams meets his match as his signature guitar looping evolves and thrives on the flourishes of jazz, country, and world music. Traces of reggae and hip-hop enliven "Ninja Love," featuring Michael Franti's deep, smoky vocals. On "Rainy Day," Martin Sexton's playful trumpet-like vocals and beat boxing blend with sporadic guitar snippets, pushing jam rock outside the confines of 15-minute guitar solos. It's about time someone embraced the genre with such creativity. [Amy Farnsworth] Keller Williams plays at Berklee Performance Center on Thursday.
Eleni MandellMiracle of Five
Essential: "Make-Out King"
On "Miracle of Five," her sixth album, the chameleonic Eleni Mandell croons a subtle, slow-burn collection of romantic tunes. With contributions from Wilco's Nels Cline and X's DJ Bonebrake, Mandell makes torch songs strong enough to inspire jealousy in the likes of Neko Case and Norah Jones. "Moonglow, Lamp Low" and "Miracle of Five" are sultry make-out ballads, where "Make-Out King" is an endearing narrative about hoping to snag the sexy guy. Mandell is an impressive songwriter with an ear for melody, but her delicate vocals stand out. Her sweet alto reveals such emotion. Mandell has always been a well-kept secret, but "Miracle of Five" is a swooning declaration that she's sexier, smarter, and jazzier than your average
Don't let the name fool you: Jamuel Saxon isn't a jam-rock frat band. It's one dude in San Diego making scratchy laptop beats with soulful vocoder vocals and Casio keyboard effects that sound like the hold music at the Emotionally Abused Robot Hotline. Stream it at myspace.com/jamuelsaxon.
Boxed InIf your head isn't spinning after listening to the new Judy Henske retrospective on Rhino Handmade , then you simply weren't paying attention. Sorely underrated and unknown, Henske was the original flip-flopper, a powerhouse singer who belted it out to the balcony like a cross between Mama Cass and Grace Slick , with zero concern for what that meant for her marketability.
On two discs spanning four decades, "Big Judy: How Far This Music Goes (1962-2004)" presents Henske as a passionate yet wildly erratic performer who was convincing and confident in multiple genres.
The collection starts with Henske's early recordings, veering from gospel ("Oh Didn't He Ramble" ) to campfire folk ("Hooka Tooka" ) to finger-snapping jazz ("High Flying Bird" ). It wraps up with her latest work, which proves Henske still has the pipes, even if the material isn't quite worthy of her.
The journey in between those bookends is akin to putting a fistful of quarters into a jukebox and letting it select at random. "Blues Chase Up a Rabbit," a lean, folk-blues song, precedes "Snowblind," a searing bit of late-'60s psychedelic rock that sounds like it escaped from Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow."
If there's one constant in Henske's music, it's her determination to turn a song inside out. She doesn't sing it: She sells it, with the brassy bravado of the Sophie Tuckers and Bessie Smiths before her.
"Big Judy" is available as a limited-edition release through rhinohandmade.com.