DirtyBeachesDrifters.jpgDIRTY BEACHES: Drifters / Love is the Devil
Zoo Music, 76 minutes

Rating: 4.5/5

Alex Zhang Hungtai’s fifth full-length release as Dirty Beaches is actually two albums, Drifters and Love is the Devil, released together. They are aesthetically distinct but complementary. Heard in order, the more conventional lo-fi songs of Drifters descend into the murky, largely instrumental depths of Love is the Devil, its more rewarding twin.

Drifters hews closer to the sound expected of Hungtai after his breakthrough Badlands (2011). While his period of reference has moved on in years, from ‘60s rockabilly and garage to early ‘80s post-punk and gothic pop, his songs are still densely rhythmic and ominous. “ELLI” is the sound of a man happening upon a drum machine left on in an empty, abandoned house (and more literally touches on having a partner leave home for good.) “Casino Lisboa” is relatively jauntier, still foreboding. Drifters most interesting track is certainly “Mirage Hall,” a 10-minute, multi-part epic capped with Hungtai barking out syllables in Spanish. It sounds daunting but is actually quite gripping.

Love is the Devil is almost entirely instrumental and superficially the more experimental album, but its pieces are unique — the lonely horns of “Greyhound at Night” provide a much different emotional connection than the string-laden, vanquished pop of “I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back to You,” for example — and easy to digest. Only “Alone at the Danube River” and the aching, gorgeous closer “Berlin” are longer than your average tune.

While Badlands wasn’t exactly an accessible album, it did have moments of pure pop like “Lord Knows Best” that earned Hungtai some measure of crossover success. There are no such immediate pleasures to be found here, but many more that require (and reward) patient consideration.  

LauraMarlingEagle.jpgLAURA MARLING: Once I Was an Eagle
Virgin, 63 minutes
Rating: 4.5/5 

The lover of brevity in me balked at the sheer enormity of Laura Marling’s fourth album Once I Was an Eagle (16 songs in 63 minutes), considering that while Marling has made good-to-great albums so far, her best quality hasn’t exactly been dynamism.

Marling gets around this by making Once I Was an Eagle a properly divided but largely continuous piece. Without direct evidence of changeover, it’s not always apparent when one song has ended and the next has begun. On first listen this is somewhat alienating, but subsequent spins reveal how the tracks feed into each other, presenting an album that exists as a whole piece even while it subtly changes shape.

As on past albums, Marling’s greatest appeal is still her lyricism; her chosen perspective is that of an older, wiser woman but that doesn’t detach her from the subject matter so much as it strengthens the impact of her observations; “You might not think that I care / but you don’t know what I know,” she remarks on “You Know.” That could be a mission statement.

Having taken the perspective of an aged soul come back in the form of youth, Marling belongs in the limited (but hallowed) ranks of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen — fellow songwriters who can carry deceptively simple compositions on their wise wordplay alone. The next generation may speak of her with the same reverence.

sparrowMurder.jpgSPARROW AND THE WORKSHOP: Murderopolis
Song by Toad Records, 
38 minutes
Rating: 3.5/5

To Sparrow and the Workshop frontwoman Jill O’Sullivan, physical and emotional turmoil are one in the same. In many of the band’s songs, chief among them “I Will Break You,” “Into the Wild” and “Black to Red,” protagonists are literally beaten down, used up, and kicked around. This underlying theme has given their alt-country songs a discomforting undercurrent.

From its title on down, the band’s third album Murderopolis brings the terror hiding conspicuously in Sparrow’s sound to the forefront, resulting in their emotionally and sonically heaviest album to date. Bassist Nick Packer has slowly crept up behind O’Sullivan to become the band’s driving force, and Murderopolis is often defined by its thick low-end brought high up in the mix.

“Valley of Death,” “Flower Bombs” and “Shock Shock” are beefed-up rockers that may finally help Sparrow break through to a wider audience, but the album works best when its mood is tempered; “Water Won’t Fall” and “Autumn to Winter” don’t have to tear up the room to be noticed. Murderopolis, perhaps, could have used more of these subtle passages to break up its perpetual anguish.

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