Modest Mouse, “No One's First, and You're Next” (Sony)
Modest Mouse has proven one thing over the years — it's anything but predictable. The group's latest collection of outtakes and B-sides captures an ability to crank out both clingy, radio-friendly gems and awkward but artful stumblers. While the EP is slightly retrospective, snagging tracks from the past few years, it's hardly used as an opportunity to suggest a band's ordinary evolution. In fact, the sonic oscillations of the disc suggest that the guys (including former Richmonder and multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso) have complete control over their sound and use it creatively. Guitars range from sweet and strummy to ragged, while rhythms ebb and flow, creating a constant state of motion alongside frontman Isaac Brock's pitchy yelps. It's definitely more of the same, but there's enough new stuff to make it engaging. At just eight tracks, we can only wish there were more. HHHII — Hilary Langford
Amanda Blank, “I Love You” (Downtown)
Amanda Blank lives up to her name. The Philly emcee shares stages and studios with Spank Rock and Diplo, but she doesn't have enough presence to sustain her solo debut. She's never as revolutionary as M.I.A., as creatively filthy as Peaches or as mind-bendingly motormouthed as Yo! Majesty. She's so stuck in the past that she hardly seems their contemporary. Covering early Prince and LL Cool J, she manages to make them both unfunky, and her ripoff of Romeo Void's still-potent “Never Say Never” is lazy and deferential. She may be merely a cipher on those pointless covers, but at least those travesties are somewhat memorable. Blank lazily fashions hooks out of repetition instead of catchiness, and her rapping is as rudimentary as Roxanne Shante's but never as charming. On this gratuitous and fatuous debut, Blank sounds like a hanger-on who was finally passed the mic but doesn't know what to do with it. HIIII — Stephen M. Deusner
Gloriana, “Gloriana” (Emblem)
Is Gloriana a country band with pop flourishes or a pop band with country leanings? On its self-titled debut, the North Carolina-by-way-of-Nashville quartet mixes country guitars and ample pedal steel with vocals that have more to do with Fleetwood Mac than with Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Is that such a bad thing? Yes and no. The group's debut sounds occasionally anonymous, especially on slower numbers such as “Lead Me On” and “ Cry on Command,” although that may have as much to do with the jumbled production as the performances. “Come and Save Me” and “The Way It Goes” are anchored to what sound like programmed beats that are more distracting than distinctive, and too often producer Matt Serletic compresses the voices into a bland mash of harmony. But the members of Gloriana have enough personality to break through that too-slick studio sheen and instill upbeat numbers like “You Said” and “Wild at Heart” with the kind of back-sass ebullience that transcends genre. HHHII— S.D.
The Low Anthem, “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” (Nonesuch)
Simultaneously ancient and shiny-button new, The Low Anthem shifts seamlessly from hymnal harmonies to folk intimacy to clatter and shout blues. Tom Waits is an obvious influence (the band covers his musical setting of Jack Kerouac's “Home I'll Never Be”), but the song before it, “The Horizon Is a Beltway,” sounds even more like Waits, and “Ticket Taker” sounds like early Leonard Cohen right down to a gambler in the rain. There are other touchstones — Beckish vocal distortions, a Dylanesque harmonica — but in the end what matters is that they add up to something unique. The traditional elements, rendered on guitar, wheezing church organ and a couple of dozen additional acoustic instruments, are layered with studio clarity and spiced with postmodern touches of intentional distortion. The lyrics are smart, evocative and elusive enough to avoid arty cleverness. While there are a number of elegiac, languid pieces, there's also “Champion Angel,” which accelerates into a promise that this is a kick-ass band outside of the inevitably precious confines of the studio. But if there are individual cuts that could stand on their own, the CD is designed as a song cycle, ending with altered versions of the two opening songs. The theme is modern dislocation, and “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” is a rare example of a species that the slice-and-dice digital age has rendered almost extinct: the concept album. HHHHI — Peter McElhinney