Hiding behind craft: Dierks Bentley, serpentwithfeet, Neko Case, Courtney Barnett

Dierks Bentley – The Mountain

This gorgeous bundle of hay has released one sturdy country album every couple years since Bush II commanded the American empire. It’s Dierks’ job, he likes it; hell, maybe he loves it but it’s hard to tell. Imagination, curiosity — these virtues are harder to fake. I hear no future singles on The Mountain as sharp as “Say You Will,” “Black,” or “5-1 5-0,” especially since I doubt he’ll release the vehemently strummed Brothers Osborne collaboration “Burning Man,” a metaphor not an ode to the festival honoring self-absorbed straight bro-ness (maybe the reception to last album’s hamhanded – in every sense – attempt at empathy “Different For Girls” spooked him). He sure loves loving women and performing his loving of them: “Women, Amen,” of course, and the piano ballad “My Religion,” which has Dierks’ girl carving her name under his in a tree in Central Park – is that legal? “She was like my guitar/Always waitin’ around just to be in my arms.” This from the guy who attended songwriting boot camp in Telluride. Nevertheless, a quarter of the album will disappoint no one looking for that Bentley spritz, including the song named after Telluride.

serpentwithfeet – soil

Building an altar to masochism is Josiah Wise’s mission, often a strength, on occasion an annoyance. “Each time you deny my mess/You find yourself closer to me” is one of his better aperçus, with “It’s a gift, it’s a gift to miss you” less so. The former choir boy multitracks himself into infinity over laptop beats; the melodic lines allow him a demotic flexibility that can veer into the tuneless.  The ghosts of Eartha Kitt, Terence Trent D’Arby, and Bobby McFerrin haunt these performances.

Neko Case – Hell-On

Every time I listen to her I have to accustom myself anew to sudden key changes and long verse lines settling into or occasionally fighting the melody. What made 2009’s Middle Cyclone attractive to me on first listen is how she got down to business in the first three songs: her immediate hooks, that huge voice, the perfect instrumental accompaniment, most of which by longtime associate Paul Rigby. Thanks to him and his mates, Neko Case’s seventh album has an attractive density, too opaque for beguiling; the surface offers pleasures, and the patient will get their due rewards should they stick to it. I suspect she has a novel in her, or a memoir, which is the same thing. Head New Pornographer has co-writes on a pair of the sturdier tracks: “Gumball Blue,” a mythopoetic depiction of what being in a band is like (“All the spells we cast without trying/We pushed through”), anchored by a hypnotic drum part; and “My Uncle’s Navy,” keyed to a wheezing guitar part and a hook that goes, “Mercurochrome and Merthiolate stains.” More attractive density? Mere attractive density.

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

I know it’s hard to stay excited for a second album, not when the last six weeks have seen an unusual number of high profile pop releases. But, really, Courtney Barnett’s second album is as powerful as her first and if anything tighter. As I wrote last week in SPIN: “Although the titles suggest an inward turn (“Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” “Walkin’ on Eggshells”), Tell Me uses neuroses as the pegs on which Barnett hangs affirmations of self-reliance; she takes no shit because she’s spent years taking shit. And her band has grown in confidence.”

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