The Fiery Furnaces, "Bitter Tea"
Avant-garde indie music's favorite (nonpretend) brother-sister duo, Eleanor and Matt Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces, make a swift return following 2005's generally accepted to be disastrous concept album "Rehearsing My Choir." The siblings' grandmother doesn't make an appearance on "Bitter Tea" -- does this mean the Friedbergers have gone populist? Only if your definition of "populist" includes "ugly synthesizer tones, garbagy drum sounds, horrid collisions of video-game noises and joltingly inapposite secondary melodies in the middle of songs that were doing quite well on their own," according to the New York Times.
The Times also calls this experimentation "a rich form of self-handicapping," and Pitchfork (rating 7.6 out of 10) agrees: "The project seems in part to be about finding a way to challenge themselves and stay interested." That's all very well, but what about the songs? "For the most part, 'Bitter Tea' doesn't consist of songs so much as it consists of dissonant song fragments fused together into sonic Frankenstein monsters," explains Prefix Mag (three out of five). "'Bitter Tea' demands to be heard as a single piece of music, and it's worth the investment," offers the Chicago Tribune in defense. Only Billboard seems totally unfazed by the whole thing: "The densely produced layers of previous works are gone in favor of a big and bright fun-house feel," it exclaims, somewhat perplexingly.
Drive-By Truckers, "A Blessing and a Curse"
For a band whose most famous record, "Southern Rock Opera," was a double-disc retelling of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story, it's perhaps a surprise to discover that the Drive-By Truckers' seventh album is both short (45 minutes) and not really about the South. The Yankees at Prefix Mag (three and a half out of five) are relieved, at least: "Thematically expanded beyond a regional context, it may be just universal enough for me to enjoy without suffering any sideways glances." Pitchfork (rating 7.0), on the other hand, is not so convinced: "While the songwriters are front-and-center, they actually sound less prominent without their regional distinction to amplify their personalities."
If Southern sensibilities have dropped down on the agenda, what's left for the three guitar-wielding wordsmiths of the Drive-By Truckers? According to the San Francisco Chronicle (rating "excellent"), "they've moved on to a messier and more complicated quest, recalibrating the moral compass as they pick their way through the thorny path of impending middle age and the darker side of celebrity." And as for the distinctly un-Skynyrd-like brevity, "it's an abnormally concise record that also happens to be their least sloppy," says an approving Pop Matters (eight out of 10). Not that reviewers are willing to abandon all Southern clichés in describing the relatively clean-cut new approach of Drive-By Truckers: E! Online (grade B+) finds it to be "packing in all kinds of mustache-wearing, hard-drinking excitement."
Candi Staton, "His Hands"
Alabama native Candi Staton has run the pop gamut throughout her 40-year solo career, from Southern soul and R&B belter to disco diva ("Young Hearts Run Free"), from -- bizarrely -- rave vocalist (on early '90s U.K. crossover hit "You've Got the Love") to born-again gospel singer. She has returned to a secular sound and earthly subject matter for her latest: It's her first album to properly deal with the years of alcohol dependency and spousal abuse she suffered during her hit-making heyday.
"His Hands," produced by Lambchop member Mark Nevers and featuring songwriting contributions from Merle Haggard and Will Oldham, as well as Staton herself, is a "sublime set" and a "through-and-through classic," according to Billboard. The Guardian reports that Staton's voice "remains achingly desperate and quietly dignified," while All Music (three and a half out of five) also notes that "it's amazing how little her voice has changed through nearly four decades." And it's not just the songs and voice that make "His Hands" a "very good album," concludes All Music: "Knowing that Staton seems to have cleared a glorious path through her dependencies and abusive relationships makes it all the more sweet."
-- Matt Glazebrook