Blackfield - II: Guitarist and vocalist Steven Wilson seems to have split his pop sensibility off from his "other" band, Porcupine Tree, so they could focus more on delving into darker subjects with heavier music. Blackfield, his project with Israeli singer Aviv Geffen, is more of an outlet for his more, um . . . "upbeat" material. I say upbeat in quotes because it's hard to call it that, exactly, since the songs are still filled with tales of heartbreak and personal woe. But in comparison to the pure angst experienced in recent Porcupine Tree material, where societal ills are front and center, it does indeed feel lighter. Here is where Wilson and Geffen allow their catchiest, most beautiful harmonies to emerge, even while turning out some of the year's best hard rock - if "Epidemic" is not one of the best straight-up rock songs of the year, something is wrong.
The Shins - Wincing the Night Away: Maybe it's a "sophomore slump" of sorts to some - despite it being their third album - since their big break came with Garden State a few years back when Chutes Too Narrow was all the rage. Will they really change your life? I think a lot of people thought they would and are holding this album to that standard. This is not that album. In fact, it's an album made for the people who scoff at such notions and wanted something beyond more of the same from the band. It's mature pop, darker, weirder, a little off-putting - a decided step away from the candy-coated elixir of their first two albums that hooked so many. And it's exactly the kind of move a band needs to make to stand the test of time. Personally, I hope to see many more Shins albums lining the shelves of my CD rack.
Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger: Adams has regained the focus he had with Heartbreaker and Gold and turned out one of the strongest sets of music of his career here. What came through after a few spins for me, what grabbed me, is that behind the usual country tinges was a little swagger found in soul and r&b that I hadn't really noticed before. It's not pronounced, but it's there nonetheless.
Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet: It might be easy to go on and on about the themes of isolation that waft through Blank Planet's lyrics, but for me, it's all about one thing: the music. Honestly, sometimes the lyrics are a little pedestrian and it's not like this isn't a topic that hasn't been covered a million times before. They're simply excuses for Steven Wilson to lay down some of those gorgeous harmony choruses. But back to the music - Wilson cranks things up a bit here, and, as I said above, he seemingly has split off the pop-side of the band to Blackfield, so Porcupine Tree can focus on the darker, heavier, grittier, and weirder stuff. And we get it all - "Anesthetize" expands to nearly 18 minutes in basically two movements and features some of the heaviest, fastest playing the band has ever done, and then is followed by one of the prettiest songs they've ever done, "Sentimental" (which features the memorable riff from In Absentia's "Trains.") The album is nothing if not an intense song-cycle of despair.