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Songs of the Week: The Return of Sad Beck and the Guitar-Happy Hold Steady

Advance word on Beck’s forthcoming album, Morning Phase, is that it’s in the mode of his sad-sack classic, 2002’s Sea Change. “Blue Moon” seems to confirm this — guitars are prominent, the mood is downcast, and when Beck sings “I’m so tired of being alone” he’s not affecting an irony-skirting Al Green falsetto.

Beck, “Blue Moon”

Advance word on Beck’s forthcoming album, Morning Phase, is that it’s in the mode of his sad-sack classic, 2002’s Sea Change. “Blue Moon” seems to confirm this — guitars are prominent, the mood is downcast, and when Beck sings “I’m so tired of being alone” he’s not affecting an irony-skirting Al Green falsetto. That said, by Sea Change standards, “Blue Moon” is briskly paced, especially when that frittering synth solo kicks in at around the three-minute mark. Maybe Morning Phase won’t be Beck’s “sad” LP after all, but rather his “aging pop-rock craftsman” record. We shall see.

The Hold Steady, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”

The operative word for Teeth Dreams, the Hold Steady’s sixth studio album (due March 25), is “guitars.” This is the Brooklyn band’s first LP recorded with second guitarist Steve Selvidge, and the record’s shiny, big-time rock sound emphasizes the push and pull between Selvidge and the Hold Steady’s long-time Jimmy Page figure, Tad Kubler. You can hear this in the album’s leadoff cut, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” which immediately leaps out of the speakers with a verve lacking in the Hold Steady’s previous album, 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever. That record suffered from the hangover of keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s departure — after releasing four albums in just six years, the Hold Steady was stuck between stations, having exhausted the party-kid narratives and E Street band flourishes of its early work and now sounding unsure of how to move forward. On Teeth, the Hold Steady has successfully rebooted as a hooky pop-rock act with fantastically kinetic guitar tones. (The producer did the last two Rush albums, and those records are a surprisingly decent frame of reference for Dreams.) A seriously addictive listen, Teeth feels like the start of another long winning streak.

Rosanne Cash, “A Feather’s Not a Bird”

Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread is what I like to imagine the Rayna James–Liam McGuiness collaborative LP sounds like, should the wrangling between Edgehill and Highway 65 ever get resolved. It is the epitome of tasteful, exceedingly well-made Americana comfort food — not flashy in the least, but as evidenced by “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” there’s just enough grease and dirt under the fingernails to do Cash’s cowpunk roots justice. Like her father, Rosanne Cash has matured over the course of four decades from hell-raising outsider to dignified institution. Her first album of originals since 2006’s Black Cadillac, The River & the Thread reaffirms Cash’s status as a reliable outlaw traversing the terrains between country, gospel, and singer-songwriter pop.

Mac DeMarco, “Passing Out Pieces”

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As a performer (and quasi performance artist), Mac DeMarco can definitely rub people the wrong way. His affected “dirtbag asshole” persona and penchant for smirking through highly irreverent covers of songs like Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” might annoy me, too, if DeMarco didn’t also have a talent for writing sweetly off-kilter guitar-pop songs. (Also, if you’re on his peculiar wavelength, DeMarco’s concerts really are a blast.) Based on my early listens, Salad Days sounds like a close cousin of DeMarco’s previous LP, II, one of my favorite albums of 2012.

Natural Child, “Saturday Night Blues”

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These lovably sloppy Nashville garage-rockers first landed on my radar with two shots of Stonesy rock pissed through a Blood Visions filter, For the Love of the Game and Hard in Heaven. Both records were great fun, but the upcoming Dancin’ With Wolves is a step forward in the songwriting department, and a pleasing turn toward their hometown’s honky-tonk heritage. Mixing barrelhouse rockers with tear-in-your-beer balladry in a delightfully druggy haze, Natural Child has fashioned Wolves into a Flying Burrito Brothers record with the production of Goats Head Soup, and damn it if they don’t pull it off.

 

Culted, “Illuminati”

Your mid-column heavy metal smoke break, courtesy of Culted’s Oblique to All Paths.

 

Hurray for the Riff Raff, “St. Roch Blues”

Before anything else, let me state the obvious: Alynda Lee Segarra has a knockout voice, like Dusty Springfield if she really did hail from Memphis. I just wish her songs were as exciting as her pipes. Segarra’s band Hurray for the Riff Raff is a laid-back neo-folk outfit with a habit of underlining its old-timey reference points — song titles on the forthcoming Small Town Heroes include “Blue Ridge Mountain,” “Crash on the Highway,” and “Levon’s Dream.” Reading her interviews, it’s easy to admire Segarra’s knowledge and reverence for music history — which spans from Billie Holiday to early-’90s riot grrrl bands — but as a musician she hasn’t found a fresh entry point for those influences yet. “St. Roch Blues” starts promisingly with an insinuating finger-snap pulse, a haunting tremolo guitar lick, and Segarra’s understated croon. But like so much on Heroes, it putters along pleasingly without ever really catching fire.

 

Drowners, “Luv, Hold Me Down”

Drowners will inevitably be dismissed as a Strokes rip-off, but that is not entirely true. “Luv, Hold Me Down” is really a Longwave rip-off. Drowners’ self-titled debut (due Tuesday) isn’t so much about cashing in on dudes’ nostalgia for Is This It but rather their nostalgia for the early-’00s wave of Strokes-alike bands. I happen to be a member of this target demographic, and whatever the opposite of trolling is, “Luv, Hold Me Down” does it to me.

Jennifer Nettles, “That Girl”

Stepping out on her own from the superstar country duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles hired Rick Rubin to produce her solo debut, That Girl. And he basically did his Rick Rubin thing, inviting Nettles to record out in Malibu with an impressive cast of backing musicians that includes Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and one of the greatest rock-and-roll keyboardists ever, Ian McLagan of the Faces. On the whole, the album feels like a missed opportunity. (For all the supposed “naturalism” he brings to his projects, Rubin can’t touch the unvarnished beauty of Sugarland’s 2007 hit “Stay.”) But I like the title track, which tucks some neat McLagan licks under Nettles’s vocal.

Mozes and the Firstborn, “Skinny Girl”

This song sounds like Graham Nash covering a Brian Jonestown Massacre song — which might happen if Graham Nash were produced by Rick Rubin, only it would suck. “Skinny Girl” most definitely does not suck. It’s perfect, really.