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  • Rich Kassirer

CD Reviews: Regina Spektor, Erin McKeown, the Avett Brothers, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Regina Spektor – Far Out now

Regina Spektor albums are like an art gallery. Not a museum gallery, where ancient works depict life as it was, but a contemporary space where each artwork tells a story — maybe about who the artist is or how they view the world politically, socially, environmentally.

In this way, Regina’s songs are snippets of life – hers? others? – in palettes of intense color, wrapped gently in mostly piano-driven arrangement told in a voice that rises and falls in fluttering waves that if it weren’t so beautiful it might be thought of as pretentious. Her new album, “Far,” continues a path started with her previous work, “Begin to Hope,” which brought her from that Quirky Russian New York Anti-Folk Singer to indie-pop darling. That is to say her songs became a little more accessible to the average music fan. That doesn’t mean she’s now the second coming of Celine Dion. In fact, what makes Regina and her songs so special is her ability to embrace that wondrous quirky side of herself.

The songs on “Far,” like looking at gallery art, need to be taken in individually and given multiple listens. The opener “The Calculation,” a bouncy little love song, is followed by the captivating “Eet” (yes, eet is the entire chorus!) . Each tune tells a story or a snippet of a story, big or small, of a place in time, a relationship, all from her unique perspective. “Wallet” tells of her returning a lost wallet to Blockbuster.

And the album’s single “Laughing With,” deals with the power of God: “No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war/ No one’s laughing at God/ When they’ve lost all they’ve got/ And they don’t know what for.” Powerful words, to be sure.

What really makes this album and Regina herself special is her voice, which she uses to gorgeous affect – at once captivating, beckoning and urging you to listen. She can move from a whisper to roar and back like on “Human of the Year.”

A couple of tunes at first seem a little heavy on production. But after multiple listens, you just can’t help loving the robot-like effects on “Mach-ine” and the playful beats of “Dance Anthem of the ‘80s.”

All in all, “Far” takes off where “Begin to Hope” ended. We can only hope that her quirky art will continue.

Erin McKeown – Hundreds of Lions Out: Oct. 13

Listening to a new Erin McKeown album is like waking up on Christmas morning with high hopes but no idea what is inside those gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. In the past there was some indie-folk and ’40s jazz swing, but most of the time it was a homemade concoction of different genres and styles, masterfully delivered with class and a wink of an eye.

So how does “Hundreds of Lions” fit in? Just fine, thank you. If you liked her previous efforts, “Distillation” and “Grand” especially, “Lions” will make you smile with its wide-ranging mix of sounds. A bass saxophone anchors the delightful, head-bobbing opening track,“To a Hammer,” while Erin’s choppy guitar strum and a moody piano line keep “The Foxes” moving. “(Put the Fun Back in) the Funeral” slinks along in dark places. And the totally fun ditty “The Rascal” hits you right in the feet, with its bouncy piano beat and hand claps. It reminds us a little of Michelle Shocked’s “Jump Jim Crow.”

With each song, the more you listen, the more you hear deep inside as the lyrics, instruments and ear candy – chirps, rattles, whistles – build on each other. The lyrics focus mainly on relationships and love and life. In the stellar tune “The Lions” Erin sings “There’s a risk/ there’s a twist/ in anything worth doing/ if you’re caught/ doing what’s proper/ you better stop before you ruin it.” The song chugs along with its circus theme but the words prove much deeper, discussing love as a high wire act.

The idea of risk is fitting for Erin. This album was originally meant to be self-financed though a series of Web concerts she called “Cabin Fever.” The idea, both risky and inventive, had her playing four unique concerts from her home and broadcasting by pay subscription live on the Internet. The hope was that freeing herself from a label would allow her and her producer, Sam Kassirer, to take the time to make the best album possible. After the album was completed, “Hundreds of Lions” was picked up by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label for distribution, which should help in getting the word out.

A final note on “Hundreds of Lions”: Those that buy the physical CD, rather than the digital form of the album, are in for a treat. This is one of the most beautifully presented CDs we’ve seen. The cardboard case, with the silhouette picture of Erin on the front, is beautifully folded with a tuck-in flap to close it. Inside the lyric sheet unfolds several times and is decorated with drawings of lions.

For Erin fans, “Hundreds of Lions” is a gift indeed.

The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You Out Sept. 29

For a while now, we’ve been hearing about the Avett Brothers. But with so many brother bands out there – the Felice Brothers, the Chemical Brothers – when it’s time to get around to listening, we’ve forgotten which one was which. So on the occasion of their first big-label album, “I and Love and You,” we finally sat down and gave the Avetts a listen, and, of course, now we’re slapping ourselves silly that we have taken so long to come around.

The Avetts – brothers Scott and Seth Avett, who play banjo and guitar, respectively, and Bob Crawford on bass-– have put together folk-rocking tunes that sound like a modern-day album by The Band. This is probably no surprise to the Avett’s avid following which has five independently produced albums of past material. The songs on the stellar “I and Love and You” focus on the maturity of its members as they hit the age of 30. While the title song plays like a love song to Brooklyn, we’re guessing there might be deeper meaning. “January Wedding” and “And It Spread,” a fabulous breakup/ new-love song, get right to the point. Most of the tunes feature banjo, guitar and piano; a few are punctuated with drums, and songs, such as “And It Spread” and “Kick Drum Heart,’’ really stand out.

“Ten Thousand Words” features some great guitar picking and “Tin Man” is one of our favorites, with it’s lyrics: “You can’t be like me/But be happy that you can’t/I see pain but I don’t feel it /I am like the old tin man/I’m as worn as a stone/I keep it/ steady as I can/I see pain but I don’t feel it I am like the old tin man. “

We can’t wait to see them in October. Viewing some clips of their live shows on YouTube, it is clear that on stage even the mellowest tunes are spiked with their high-energy enthusiasm.

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Know Better Learn Faster Out Oct. 13

If you were wondering what direction Thao and her two-piece band, the Get Down Stay Down, would take on their new album, the 33-second a cappella opener called “The Clap” gives you a pretty good idea. Here are the complete lyrics: “If this is how you want it OK, OK.”

Yep, the new album, titled “Know Better Learn Faster” is a breakup album, and like most of them it is chock-full of your typical breakup themes. By song titles alone, you get the picture: “Cool Yourself,” “Good Bye Good Luck,” and “Burn You Up.”

But if you heard Thao’s critically acclaimed first album, “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” full of bouncy beats and jittery acoustic guitar strumming, well, you pretty much could have guessed her breakup album wasn’t going sound like your typical breakup album.

The lyrics may belie her sadness but the beats are still danceable and fun.

Backed by her scrappy duo of Adam Thompson on bass, keys, and additional guitar, and Willis Thompson on drums and percussion, Thao lays down those funky guitar rhythms we fell in love with on her debut. She also had some help from the violin of Andrew Bird and backing vocals of Laura Veirs.

“When We Swam” starts with Thao singing over an electric guitar line, but when she breaks into “Oh, bring your hips to me,” to a fun groove, well, how can you not move to the beat? The title song shares the pain of her relationship now over. As she says in the album’s notes, “By the time you realize you should ‘know better, learn faster,’ it’s too late.”

As she says in the opening of the last song, “sad people dance too…” Then the bass and drums kick in and off we go.

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