Magpies' fourth album, Annex, features shimmery minor-key chords and sometimes strutting, sometimes angular riffs. It's a mix the Missoula (by way of Havre) band has stayed true to since its 2009 release Pica Pica. The style is both gauzy and heavy and evokes post-rock fuzz bands such as Shudder to Think, Built to Spill, Sonic Youth and the Pixies (mostly in their prime late-'80s/ early-'90s eras).
The dual vocals of guitarist Tolan Harber and bassist Samantha Pollington sound somewhere between a snarl and a purr and offer interesting tension even when the narrative isn't clear. That tension is dominant on the 2012 release Pretty Big Time, with songs like "Glitter Bomb Lovespill" and "Gasoline Semen." It felt like the soundtrack to speeding down the highway past alfalfa fields at night—really pretty, but kind of precarious.
Annex still mostly feels like you're barrelling through the dark in a mesmerizing rock haze, and the tightest and most powerful tracks"Winterkill" and "Next 3 Exits"are also the most high-octane. But the album also includes some more introspective moments, as in "Sycamore" and "Sentimental Stone," and those roadside turnouts provide welcome contrast. (Erika Fredrickson)
Magpies play the VFW Fri., Feb. 3, at 10 PM.
Jonny Fritz, Sweet Creep
Jonny Fritz's newest album is the kind you listen to and then immediately have to replay. I got it for Christmas and it's been a go-to on my walk to work ever since. The first track, "Are You Thirsty," unpacks addiction and sets the tone for a strong record filled with songs about relationship failure, crappy motels, cruddy tours and chili dogs. Even with some pretty bleak material, Fritz has got a way of making it upbeat.
Fritz is a country musician in the same way Lana Rebel is country. It's the genre that seems closest to the music he's playing, but it's probably not what lots of people think of as country. (Fritz is also pretty clear in the liner notes that he doesn't think of Sweet Creep as a country record.) He stays clear of cliché and the well-trodden lyrical pitfalls of country, and the result is a wonderfully personal and intimate troubadour record.
There's some humor in Sweet Creep, but not too much jokey stuff. These are songs written by a guy whose observations of quirky scenarios like "Brokeback Mountain on a TV screen, Brokeback re-enactment room 213" (on "Stadium Inn") always seem to come easy to him. Fritz has a beautiful voice, and I love that for this album he enlisted some songwriting support from Montana's Izaak Opatz of the Best Westerns. (Josh Vanek)
Blue Rodeo, 1,000 Arms
"I wonder how this ends/You lying on the floor/With your head in your hands." Funny, that line from "Long Hard Life" describes how I frequently listened to Blue Rodeo's first three albums in the early '90s. Diamond Mine in particular was my wallowing soundtrack after a long-term relationship ended with all the finesse of a locomotive plunging into a gas station. The Toronto band's big break never came, but I've been digging their compelling roots rock long after I forgot that girl's face.
The one-two punch of guitarist-singers Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor is one of those rare pairings that keeps pumping out satisfying songs full of harmonies and dynamic punch and enough musical variety to keep things interesting. On 1,000 Arms they employ a pawn shop's worth of stringed instruments and keyboards to deliver their signature sound, singing grown-up songs about the complex facets of love and life. Keelor's rustic bray plays off Cuddy's silky alto like peanuts on ice cream, but Keelor gets the emotional prize for "Mascara Tears," a gorgeous ballad that drifts on a cloud of acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer organ. "Jimmy Fall Down" is harder, a sneering kiss-off to that wastrel we all know, "walking down the street, a box of records and a bag of weed." Gram Parsons fans will recognize the doomed country-rocker in "Superstar," a jaunty examination of life in the fast lane.
It's always great to run into old pals and discover that they're still great friends from your past, sometimes even improved with age. (Ednor Therriault)