breakupModeled after the Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot collaborations of the 60’s, Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson’s Break Up is a concept album that “re-enacts the tempestuous course of a love affair on the rocks.” It’s neither particularly high minded nor is it marked by overreaching by the artists: It’s really just a very good collection of pop songs with a mostly 70’s country rock bent and distinctly modern, lush production values. Johansson’s voice is sometimes borderline thin, but Yorn’s done a good job writing for her here, and mostly their vocals together shine. The album is also short and sweet at 9 tracks and just under 30 minutes, Yorn and Johansson erring on the side of not enough rather than too much. Recommended for their fans, and fans of easygoing “adult alternative” fare as well as country rock flavored indie pop. Standout cuts: “Relator,” “Wear And Tear,” “Blackie’s Dead” and “Clean.”

peteyornbackandfourthBack & Fourth, New Jersey based singer/songwriter Pete Yorn’s first album in three years, was written and recorded entirely in Omaha, Nebraska, along with producer Mike Mogis, who has previously worked with Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley. The result is his trademark mix of country and rock with a distinctly 70’s flavor, a direction hinted at by the retro album cover. It’s the kind of relaxed, laid back album that grows on you, though the strongest material stands out immediately, tracks like the single, “Don’t Wanna Cry,” which is familiar territory for Yorn, but more so tracks like “Paradise Cove,” “Shotgun,” “Last Summer” and “Thinking Of You.” I haven’t really decided where exactly it fits in his body of work, but it’s a solid return for him at any rate. Yorn fans in particular should be very pleased.

mandymooreMandy Moore’s new album, Amanda Leigh (her real first and middle name), was produced and polished to a high sheen by Mike Viola (Candy Butchers) and features Inara George (The Bird and the Bee) as a collaborator, so it arrives with some amount of indie pop/adult alternative cred. However, if Moore’s teen queen past complicates any inclination of yours to take her current music seriously, I’m not sure this album is going to be enough to change your mind. That said, this is a pretty solid Top 40-style album, though by Top 40, I mean Top 40 back in the 70’s. It’s not a retro record, exactly, but it’s strongly influenced by rock and pop from that era in particular, with Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and Todd Rundgren among the acknowledged influences. I also hear some of Linda Ronstadt’s work with producer Peter Asher on yet other tracks, like the current single (and my personal favorite song from the record), the practically irresistible “I Can Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week.” Honestly, I wish there had been more songs like “I Can Break Your Heart…” because it’s such an unadulterated slice of pop bliss, and the record could have used at least one more song in the same vein. But don’t get me wrong, songs like the opener “Merrimack River,” “Fern Dell” and the closer “Bug” are all highlights, too, and if the strongest material is weighted toward the first half, the album as a whole puts her head and shoulders above artists like Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Anna Nalick, Colbie Caillat and the like. Her music on Amanda Leigh puts her closer to the company of artists like Jennifer O’Connor, Laura Veirs and Jenny Lewis, all gifted musicians who expertly meld folk and country with pop. Here’s hoping that Moore can deliver on the promise of this album. (Though if it turns out she makes an album full of songs like “I Can Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week,” I’d be okay with that, too.)

crackersunriseSunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, the latest album from Cracker, David Lowery and Johnny Hickman’s “country band within a rock band,” finds the band expressing its rock side more so than its country side, after spending a good portion of the past few years doing the latter. There’s only one country track, in fact, the amusing “Friends,” which appears midway through the album. The vast majority of the record is full on rock and roll, starting with the opener “Yalla Yalla (Let’s Go),” one of the many songs that reference contemporary events, in this case the Iraq War, right on to the closing title track. There’s even a punkish track called “Hand Me My Inhaler,” which clocks in, appropriately, at a minute and a half. My favorite track, for the moment, anyway, is the first single, the sweetly sardonic midtempo country rocker, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me,” though their collaboration with John Doe, “We All Shine A Light,” the title track and “Time Machine” all ring my bell as well. Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey is a entertaining, sometimes exhilarating, full on dose of the keen-eyed, witty and inventive rock music that first earned them fans when they first appeared on the scene in the 90’s, and one of their most enjoyable and richly satisfying albums yet. Standout cuts: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me,” “We All Shine A Light,” “Time Machine” and “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.”

The new record from Minneapolis based singer/songwriter Ben Weaver was designed by Weaver and producer Brian Deck to meld Weaver’s folk and Southern California country rock influenced music with the electronic pop of Australian musician Christian Fennesz. The results suggest fellow Minnesotan native Bob Mould’s electronic experiments without emulating them, though a better description might be Tom Waits or Chuck Prophet backed by a rock band given to noodling with their bank of synthesizers and keyboards. Whatever description one settles on, it’s an effective, intelligent album, a full bodied work from a hugely talented musician. I wasn’t familiar with Weaver’s music prior to The Ax In The Oak, but I found myself immediately drawn in from the opening notes on. The lyrics are smart and witty, and the music expertly blends what might’ve been in other hands clashing styles and sounds. Simply stated, this is very good music, and I highly recommend it. Standout cuts: “White Snow,” “Red Red Fox,” “Anything With Words” and “Hawks And Crows.”

The first new album in four years from Dallas based band the Old 97’s is a pleasant, relaxed affair, a mixed bag of pop rock along the lines of Big Star and later Replacements, and alt-country and Americana flavored tunes. The latter material works best, as on the opening track, “The Fool,” and later tracks, “Early Morning,” “The Easy Way,” “Here’s To The Halcyon” and “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue,” but the power pop of “Dance With Me” is a highlight, too. The most memorable songs are weighted towards the second half of Blame It On Gravity, where the band seems to settle into a comfortable groove. It’s a solid effort from a band now celebrating fifteen years of making music, and still finding ways to have fun doing it.