OFFA REX — ‘The Queen of Hearts’
THE GOOD: Indie folk/rock outfit Offa Rex offers up its sparkling debut (sort of).
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Offa Rex is less a proper band and more a merging of two established acts — Pacific Northwest indie rock mainstays the Decemberists and English folk singer Olivia Chaney. “Queen of Hearts” is a covers album, drawing most of its material from traditional British+ folk songs. Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy handles vocals on two tracks, Jenny Conlee’s accordion takes us through a brief medley of rockin’ jigs, and Chaney is out front for the remainder.
“Hearts” ends up a precious combination of divine storytelling, rustic folk rock and charming baroque pop. Highlights include the romantic longing of the title track, the graceful sway carrying “Bonny May” and the heavy-metal buzz coloring “Sheepcrook and Black Dog” (Uriah Heep would approve). Yet EVERY moment here is emotionally charged and memorable, making a timeless songbook that rings just as true today as it did a couple of centuries ago.
BUY IT?: You must.
IRON & WINE — ‘Beast Epic’
THE GOOD: South Carolina singer-songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) gets back to basics (and sub pop) on his sixth.
THE BAD: Depends…
THE NITTY GRITTY: On the one hand, it’s great to hear Beam ditching most of the gloss, those sweeping orchestrations and subtle electronics that dominated his work while he was on the Warner Bros. roster. On the other hand, without all the bells and whistles, “Epic” can be quite a slog at times.
Here’s the problem. Beam’s music has always been authentic, but it’s never been quite as compelling as that of a lot of his modern folk/rock peers (Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Tallest Man on Earth, Band of Horses, etc.) And in its stripped-down form, that drawback only intensifies.
There’s a certain “sameness” running throughout “Epic.” Pay close attention or the songs blur together. Put forth an honest effort though, and you’ll bump into some lovely and fragile melodies and the occasional fascinating character.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
FRANKIE ROSE — ‘Cage Tropical’
THE GOOD: Singer-songwriter (and ex-member of Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls) Frankie Rose comes back with her fourth solo outing.
THE BAD: “Cage Tropical” is more about mood and less about great individual songs. However, the vibe draws you in immediately.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rose continues to flaunt her love of all things new wave — shimmering keyboards; seamless drum beats; stark, precise guitars, etc. And as usual, she tosses those elements in a brew alongside classic ’60s pop sensibilities; girl group harmonies and the right amount of echo add body and boldness to all the flavors. What’s different this time is the “tropical” part.
Now, this is NOT a record brimming with island rhythms, steel guitars or reggae grooves. However, there is a sunny, beach-like quality to the whole affair, like a breezy, carefree afternoon and evening including the most gorgeous sunset. Tracks like the title cut and “Red Museum” are upbeat, somewhat mysterious and take you to a better place.
BUY IT?: Yes.