‘Steal the Light'
The Cat Empire (Two Shoes)
Had you asked me in the summer of 2007 to name my favorite band, I'd have hesitated maybe half a second before gushing all about Australian collective the Cat Empire. Its “Two Shoes” debut was flat-out perfect and a jaw-dropping live set at Mr. Smalls in Millvale that July showed it was far more than a product of the studio. The band's 2008 follow-up “So Many Nights” was almost as good, but the lads took a step back in 2010 with the good but not great “Cinema.” By then I'd found some new favorites and feared the Empire was on the decline. For fourth effort “Steal the Light” it has gone back to basics, and while the 12-track slab doesn't pack the same wallop as “Two Shoes,” this is a step in the right direction. “Brighter Than Gold,” the title track, “Still Young” and “Go” are terrific and convince me the Cat Empire still has something to say.
‘Confessions of a Songbird'
Kristin Errett (self-released)
The piano-fueled pop of singer/songwriter Kristin Errett is tailor made for adult contemporary radio and this talented newcomer makes quite a first impression on her “Confessions of a Songbird” debut. With a soulful voice that injects plenty of emotion into each song, Errett serves up a 10-track album that should appeal to the masses. Lead single “Don't Call Me Sweetheart” is a delight, and she also hits the right notes on keepers “Happily Never After,” “Cross My Heart,” “All I Want Is Everything” and “The Last Time You Said Hello.” Good stuff.
‘Drifters/Love Is the Devil'
Dirty Beaches (Zoo)
Please be patient when spinning the latest release from Alex Zhang Hungtai — aka Dirty Beaches. Double album “Drifters/Love Is the Devil” isn't an easy listen, but if you give it a chance, the lo-fi noise pop of Dirty Beaches just might grow on you. With 16 tracks clocking in at a combined 75 minutes, Hungtai should have broken these into two separate releases, but “I Dream in Neon,” “Belgrade,” the sprawling “Mirage Hall,” “This Is Not My City,” “Woman” and “Like the Ocean We Part” are quite compelling. Though not for everybody, Dirty Beaches merits some attention.
‘Vs. Head Vs. Heart'
Emma Louise (Frenchkiss)
Australian songstress Emma Louise has everything it takes for pop stardom. She's got a legitimately strong voice — no Autotune here — and striking good looks and enough chutzpah to show off quite a bit of skin on the cover of her “Vs. Head Vs. Heart” full-length debut. What might hold her back from fame with the masses, ironically enough, is what makes her music so interesting. These 11 songs aren't shimmering radio-ready tunes. Instead, there's an ethereal quality to the music that sets it apart from the pop pack and Emma Louise maintains a level of intensity on songs like “Atlas Eyes,” “Boy,” “Mirrors,” “Jungle” and “Cages” that compels you to pay attention. Can't wait to hear more.
Ten Kens (self-released)
On their third full-length album, Toronto art rock outfit Ten Kens explore their psychedelic side and take listeners on an often bizarre sonic journey. Initially a digital-only release, “Namesake” is now available on CD in a special edition that includes four previously unreleased tracks. That stretches the record out to 66 minutes — too long by about a third — but can't take away the effectiveness of tunes like “Bliss,” “Fetal Misgivings,” “The Calm of the Car” and the title track. I was less enthralled than some critics with seven-plus minute opener “Death in the Family,” which never quite gets to the point, but the rest of the record, while overstuffed, makes for a spacey good time.
‘Baby Caught the Bus'
Clairy Browne & the Bangin' Rackettes (Vanguard)
Nine-member collective Clairy Browne & the Bangin' Rackettes put the “soul” in retro soul on American debut “Baby Caught the Bus.” This talented outfit from Down Under takes its lead from big-voiced frontwoman Browne, who sounds like a less-troubled Amy Winehouse on this 10-track gem. The opening salvo of “Love Letter” and “Vicious Circle” set the tone and Browne & the Bangin' Rackettes further score with the title track, “I'll Be Fine,” “She Plays Up to You” and dynamite set closer “You Don't Owe Me Nothing.” This one's highly recommended.
Linda Draper (self-released)
Though folk-leaning singer/songwriter Linda Draper isn't a household name, she's been making quality albums for more than a decade. Eighth release “Edgewise” certainly ranks among her better offerings. Whether gliding through stellar original compositions like “Glass Palace,” “Right on Time,” the title track, “Shadow of a Coal Mine” and “In Good Hands,” or putting her own stamp on the Beatles classic “Blackbird,” Draper is on top of her game here. Perhaps this is the record that will give her the exposure she so richly deserves.
‘Above the City'
Club 8 (Labrador)
Swedish indie pop duo Club 8 had carved out a nice career for itself for more than a decade before taking things to the next level with 2010 masterpiece “The People's Record.” That sublime platter raised its profile among American audiences and ramped up expectations for eighth full-length “Above the City.” The new record is perfectly fine, Karolina Komstedt and Johan Angergard are too talented to deliver a clunker, but it does pale in comparison to its predecessor. The 14-track release is highlighted by “Stop Taking My Time,” “Run,” “A Small Piece of Heaven,” “Into Air” and “Straight as an Arrow” — I just wish there were more songs like them.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (Bloodshot)
Where their 2011 breakout release “Want More” was a barely contained ball of sonic soul energy, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound reels it in a bit on good but not great follow-up “Howl.” There's more of a minimalist approach to these 11 songs, with the band adding more R&B, rock and pop to its soul stew. I found myself waiting for Brooks and his mates to erupt at some point, but it never came. Songs such as the title track, “Rouse Yourself,” “Security,” “Before You Die,” “Not Alone” and “Control” merit multiple listens, but I'm hoping Brooks & the Uptown Sound returns to its old ways the next time out.
Cold Satellite (Signature Sound)
Americana troubadour Jeffrey Foucalt and acclaimed poet Lisa Olstein have an interesting working relationship. In 2010 Olstein gave Foucalt some poems and fragments of verse, which he crafted into a 12-song cycle called “Cold Satellite.” They're back at it with “Cavalcade,” this time under the Cold Satellite moniker, with another dozen tunes crafted around a series of Olstein poems. The results are even better, as Cold Satellite soars on “Elegy (In a Distant Room),” “Necessary Monsters,” “Sleepers Wake,” “Bomblet,” “Elsewhere” and “Every Boy, Every Blood.” Foucalt and Olstein make musical magic together and here's hoping there's another Cold Satellite record in their future.
‘Jackleg Devotional to the Heart'
The Baptist Generals (Sub Pop)
A decade ago indie folk/rockers the Baptist Generals were riding high on the strength of sophomore album “No Silver/No Gold.” They soon returned to the studio, but frontman Chris Flemmons ultimately scrapped what was to be the next record and we've heard nothing of the Generals since. “Jackleg Devotional to the Heart” has been massaged, tinkered with and fine-tuned over the years and is finally seeing the light of day. Flemmons said the 2005 version sounded too nondescript, which is why he ultimately decided to trash it. While you can question the process, you can't argue with the results. This 12-track release is terrific, with the Baptist Generals at long last delivering another winner. Keepers abound, including “Dog That Bit You,” “Turnunders and Overpasses,” “Broken Glass,” personal favorite “Floating” and “Morning of My Life.” Well worth the wait.
Radical Dads (Consequence of Sound)
A side project for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah drummer Robbie Guertin and pals Lindsay Baker and Chris Diken, the awesomely named Radical Dads made a strong debut in 2011 with “Mega Rama.” They're back with more infectious indie rock on “Rapid Reality” and, if anything, seem even more comfortable playing together on album No. 2. The rawness and energy remains — which is good, because that's the Dads' biggest asset — and the nine-track slab is highlighted by “Mountain Town,” “Pink Flag,” the title track, “Dust USA,” “Stampede” and “Go 45.” Highly recommended.
Keith Top of the Pops (PopMatters)
I absolutely loved the R-rated debut album from Keith Top of the Pops, the brainchild of British singer/songwriter Keith Top. With his revolving Minor UK Indie Celebrity All-Star Backing Band in tow, Keith Top of the Pops is back with the almost-as-good — and slightly less profane — followup. “TOTP 2” is as streamlined as its predecessor (10 songs whisking by in 26 minutes) and Keith Top of the Pops scores with “Morrissey Will Never Forgive Me,” “Better Than Your Boyfriend,” “Stupid Rules for Stupid People,” “I'm Alone. You're Alone. Let's Be Alone Together,” “Goodbye” and “You Wish You Were in My Band.” This one's loads of fun.
‘Defcon 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1'
Man or Astro-Man? (Communicating Vessels)
Man or Astro-Man? caught the surf-rock revival wave in the early 1990s and spent a decade churning out albums in rapid-fire succession. Its spacey approach to the genre — what would you expect from a band whose members go by names like Birdstuff, Coco and Star Crunch? — served it well but it fell out of orbit after 2001's “A Spectrum of Finite Scale.” Well, it's back at it again and “Defcon ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1” is a solid addition to the discography. Not one of the all-time classics, this 12-track release has some nice moments with “Antimatter Man,” “All Systems Go,” “Codebreaker Seventy Eight” and “Electric Arc.” Welcome back, fellas.
‘House of Cards'
Carey Appel (Heather Road)
Singer/songwriter Carey Appel lays her soul bare on first-rate sophomore platter “House of Cards,” a confessional collection of 12 tunes that showcases her estimable writing skills. Appel's voice is good, but there's nothing distinctive enough about it to set her apart from the pack. For that, she'll need to rely on the songs she's penned, and Appel has done stellar work in that area on “Don't Get Used to It,” the title track, “Trying to Please,” “Sleeping Outside Your Door,” “Words Don't Fit Here” and “When I See You Again.” Keep an eye on this promising artist.
Hooded Fang (Full Time Hobby/Daps)
Seamlessly blending elements of 1960s pop with garage punk, Canadian four-piece Hooded Fang has cobbled together its most impressive record to date in “Gravez.” Hooded Fang strikes with “Graves,” “Ode to Subterrania,” “Wasteland,” “Thrasher” and “Genes.” Frontman Dan Lee has a captivating voice and he gets additional help from bassist April Aliermo, drummer D. Alex Meeks and guitarist Lane Halley. It's time you got to know these musical neighbors from the north.
‘Maimed for the Masses'
Night Birds (Fat Wreck Chords)
To tide folks over until their next full-length drops this summer, East Coast surf punks the Night Birds serve up high-octane EP “Maimed for the Masses.” With four tunes clocking in at less than nine minutes, Night Birds expend no unnecessary energy on the title track, “Barred Out,” “Last Gasp” and “Boat Trash.” Speaking of the title track, pro wrestling fans should get a jolt out of a tune that's pretty much an ode to legendary grappler Mick Foley. Rock on.
Jeffrey Sisk is an editor for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-664-9161 ext. 1952, or firstname.lastname@example.org.